By Sara Hodon

Humans aren’t the only soldiers defending America in the Armed Forces. There are currently hundreds of military working dogs in the field, serving in a number of capacities—from weapons and explosive identification to serving as therapy dogs for wounded soldiers in military hospitals.

Gabe, a yellow Labrador, is just one of these four-legged heroes fighting alongside their human counterparts and doing their part to protect our country.

You could say that Gabe is making the most of his second chance at life by protecting others. A shelter dog rescued from a dismal fate by David and Dina Barron, a couple from Houston, Texas, Gabe was adopted by the United States Army and put through the paces in basic training. This was also where he would meet his adopted father, Sgt. 1st Class Charles “Chuck” Shuck. Gabe completed five months of training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to detect various types of explosive odors, weapons, and ammunition. “He also learned obedience, which he was pretty quick to catch on to. He worked off leash and I was quite surprised that he didn’t run away from me the first chance he got,” Shuck says.

Gabe and Shuck worked and trained alongside many other Specialized Search Dogs (SSD) and their handlers, and Shuck says they both formed lasting bonds. Shuck completed three deployments to Iraq but only one with Gabe, which lasted 13 months. Shuck earned Drill Sergeant ranking in 2008 and had to end his training with Gabe, but the pair was reunited again in 2009 when Gabe officially retired from military service and Shuck adopted him.

While in Iraq, both Shuck and Gabe relied on Gabe’s incredible sense of smell to keep them, as well as the rest of their unit, safe. “His main mission was to find the bad stuff, which he was very good at, usually on a daily basis,” Shuck explains. “Gabe was not trained to attack, but he was the point man on many missions which means he cleared the way for us be able to advance. The teams we worked with trusted Gabe a hundred percent. If we told them it was safe to go into, they did and Gabe never let us down. If Gabe told us something was there, something actually was there.”

The Lab had another important role—just being a buddy and sort of unofficial mascot for their unit when their surroundings got the best of everyone. “He gave the guys so much needed dog love when they lost a friend. He also was the dog that was able to run into the Battalion Commander or Command Sergeant Major’s office and know exactly where they kept the treats for him,” Shuck recalls. “He would go right to the desk drawer and sit and wait for a treat. Then when he wasn’t getting any more treats, he would run into the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, which was usually terribly busy. Then he would get more attention and usually a few slabs of a sandwich from his buddy First Sergeant Becker.” While human soldiers’ strategies and skill are invaluable, in many ways the working dogs’ abilities are even more important.

“They are vital to mission accomplishment. The soldiers love the dogs, but more importantly, they are doing a mission than cannot be matched by any machine or gadget. Their sense of smell is amazing,” Shuck notes. Gabe found a total of 26 different types of explosive weapons and completed over 200 combat missions in his 13-month deployment. Now, Gabe is taking life a little easier and enjoying many of the perks of retirement. “He gets to come home to the couch, all the tennis balls and toys he could play with and never again has to be confined to a cage. The Army gave him an award and he was even pinned by Colonel Huey, who now works at the United States Army Military Police School.” Gabe does have a few side effects from his time in the service, however. “He is scared of thunder. He will shake and try to hide, but I mostly believe that is from the machine gun fire that was used prior to going on mission when they would test fire the guns. He is a trooper though and we have no worries,” Shuck says.

But it’s not all a life of leisure for this team who are used to hard work and serving others. Since Gabe retired from active duty, he and Shuck make dozens of appearances a year in and around their home base of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, promoting the role of working dogs in the military. “Anytime we can get the word out there about what great things the current Working Dogs are doing, we do it. This is no longer about Gabe. We want people to see and hear about these deployed heroes that have six and seven deployments. We are their voice,” Shuck says.

In 2011, some of Gabe’s closest friends and fans launched a campaign to vote Gabe the Hero Dog of the Year, an annual award given by the American Humane Association (AMA) recognizing service dogs, including therapy dogs, law enforcement dogs, service dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, military dogs and search and rescue dogs. It took the group, first known as “Team Gabe” and later christened “Gabe Nation,” months to promote their favorite Lab through posters, merchandise, a website, video, and of course, social media (Shuck reports that Gabe has over 30,000 followers on Facebook). When the nominees were finally announced for the 2012 award, Gabe was among them (a black Lab named Tatiana, a quick-thinking service dog who saved her owner’s life, was also in the running).

A panel of celebrity dog lovers including Whoopi Goldberg and Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth voted the winner, and based on the support Gabe had already received from his fans, friends, and followers, he captured the title. The awards ceremony was broadcast on the Hallmark Channel on November 8 and the finalists received the full star treatment, appearing on the Channel’s Home and Family talk show and rubbing elbows with top celebrities and animal lovers like beloved actress and animal advocate Betty White. Shuck said meeting the other finalists and their owners was humbling. “They had such class when Gabe won the overall award and each one of them is just as deserving. It truly could have gone to any of the eight dogs that night. That’s how amazing each one of these hero dogs is,” he says.

Gabe and Shuck used the award as another way to promote their cause. As part of the award, Gabe received $15,000, which was donated to the United States War Dogs Association, an organization that provides care packages to deployed servicemen and their canine companions. “The things that our charity does for soldiers and dogs alike are second to none. For them to get a check for $15,000 is worth all the long hours on Facebook each night to get votes for Gabe,” Shuck said.

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