Working dogs, handlers share special bond
October 29, 2008
STUTTGART, Germany (Oct. 28, 2008) - A military working dog team here is waiting to find out whether a canine warrior will be awarded the Combat Action Badge.
Staff Sgt. Cully Parr, a dog handler with the 554th Military Police Company Military Working Dog Section, was deployed to Afghanistan with Rex, an 11-year-old Belgium Malinois shepherd, when they were attacked by insurgents.
During a meeting, enemy fighters attacked. "The first thing I did was get Rex behind a pillar, and I took up a position next to him," Parr said. Despite the ensuing chaos, Rex, a patrol and explosive detection dog, never budged. "That's where obedience training comes into play," Parr said. "He's got to stay there, so he doesn't risk getting injured."
Now back at Stuttgart, garrison life for the two might not be nearly as exciting, but it certainly isn't dull. The day starts early, at 5:30 a.m., when the dogs get the first of two feedings. Training follows.
"Obedience training is a daily occurrence," Parr said. "We'll also set up a problem where we train on odor, whether it is explosive or narcotics. We're always training to go downrange, though. We have dogs and handlers going out about every six months."
For a dog, the training is anything but work. "Everything we do is about play. When we're out looking for explosives, it's all play," Parr said. "Each dog has a little toy they're working for, whether it is a ball, a kong or a tug toy. When they find the odor, they'll sit on that odor, and then they get their toy. Rex has a rubber tug toy and loves it."
Training is a big part of the day, but there are other duties, Parr noted, including "a lot of paperwork that comes with the job."
"Everything we do with the dogs is annotated," Parr said. "We'll also get out on the gates, do fence-line checks and back patrols up when responding to alarms. We're also constantly checking the mail that's coming into the [Regional Post Office]."
The section also puts on demonstrations. "The main purpose of the demos is to allow the units to see what we're capable of doing, whether it's detection, bite work or obedience," Parr explained. "It allows them to see how they can use us when they go downrange. There are times when we're asked to do something out of the capabilities of the dog. For example, our dogs aren't trained to search mine fields. That's a different kind of dog."
Besides training, the handlers also care for the dogs. Eleven dogs are now at the kennel, as two soldiers and their dogs are deployed.
"We're responsible for training one dog, but we're responsible for the care and maintenance of at least one more," said Army Spc. Damen Tokarz, also of the 554th MP Company.
"It's a lot of work keeping the dogs groomed and cleaning the kennels," he said. "We clean their runs every day, scrub them from top to bottom and disinfect once a week, bathe the dogs a minimum of once every two weeks, brush them at least every other day, feed, water and give them their medicine." They also take the dogs that don't have handlers out for exercise.
He's not complaining, though.
"Being a dog handler is a thoroughly enjoyable job, but it's physically, mentally and emotionally demanding," Tokarz said.
When the dogs have dental or veterinary appointments, the handlers are there right alongside their dogs. The U.S. Army Europe Military Working Dog Program is in the process of making sure all dogs have a gastropexy operation, a surgical procedure performed on large-breed dogs to prevent bloat, a life-threatening condition in which the stomach flips over and expands, trapping air and gases in the stomach.
Tokarz took his dog, Cedo, an 8-year-old German shepherd, and Rex to the vet clinic on Oct. 15 for the procedure. "Tonight I will be with Cedo and Rex for 24 hours," he said. "I'll check on them every half hour to make sure they're OK. It's not required, but we love and care for our dogs."
The emotional bond between handler and dog is a strong one. Just ask Staff Sgt. Moreno Thomas, who recently arrived in Stuttgart with his dog, Brando, from Fort Myer, Va.
When dog handlers relocate, their dogs typically do not go with them, Thomas said. "Ours is a rare case," he said. "I am one of the fortunate ones who was able to bring my dog with me."
Brando, a 7-year-old German shepherd, is Thomas' second dog. "My first dog, Fox, had hip dysplasia. He had to be put down. It's hard, especially when it's your first dog. That's why I wanted to [move] with Brando, so when he has to retire, I'd be able to adopt him."
(Susan Huseman works in the U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Public Affairs Office.)