Army Training: For the Dogs
February 13, 2009
According to many historians, the relationship between man and canine dates back more than 12,000 years. This is evidenced by the mummified remains of canines found resting aside pharaohs in some Egyptian tombs. During days long past, wolves were believed to instinctively follow hunters into the wild in search of prey. Utilizing man\'s intelligence and use to tools to easily fell large prey to their benefit, the wolves, in turn, would lead men to the areas where these animals dwelled by using their keen instincts and sense of smell. This symbiotic relationship has evolved over time to one of camaraderie and, even brotherhood. The modern U.S. military continues to keep the indelible bond between man and canine alive, employing more than 2,300 military working dogs in theater and abroad, in a variety of occupations. For Staff Sgt. Robert Weddle, a Leesport, Pa. native with the 89th Military Police Brigade, III Corps, and his military working dog, Elmo, the bond goes beyond the bond shared between most Soldiers in a traditional unit. "We have a brotherly bond, because I look out for Elmo and if anyone ever hurt him things could get ugly," Weddle laughed, petting Elmo, a feisty Belgian Malinois. Weddle, unlike most military dog handlers, has only enjoyed a partnership with Elmo for a short three months, only one of which being prior to deploying to Iraq's Contingency Operating Base Speicher, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A lifelong dog lover, Weddle sprang at the opportunity to work with dogs when offered, despite a traumatic experience with a dog as a child. "When I started this, I was scared of dogs, having been bitten by two when I was a kid," Weddle said. "Sometimes you have to face your fears and it's the best thing I have ever done." Completing extensive training in the field, Weddle met with a jarring hurdle in his progression through the career of dog handling. "My previous dog was injured in a kennel while I was at Fort Hood," Weddle said. With the possibility of his deployment being cancelled, Weddle pleaded with his superiors to be allowed the opportunity to deploy. Weddle was reassigned partners, meeting, his now lifelong friend, Elmo. This limited amount of time shared with a new dog can present a stark challenge to handlers, whom typically partner with their dogs at least a year prior to deploying. "The more your dog trusts you, the less aggressive the dog will be and trust you in return," Weddle said. It's the trust between the dog and the handler that makes the team successful, according to Weddle. However, just as between people, the development of trust does not happen in an instant. Instead, trust is developed over time, through a series of accomplishments, and failures, trials and triumphs. "The building of trust varies between the handler and the dog," Weddle said. "It took me about two months and we're still building it." He continued, "Every day you spend with the dog you gain more and more trust." Weddle believes the best method of building the trust necessary for a winning team is built not unlike one would build trust with a younger sibling. "I had to work extra hard with Elmo," Weddle said, due to their brief time together. "Feeding him out of my hand, playing fetch, sleeping with him, singing to him, reading to him, just going the extra mile to build that trust and get used to each other." Elmo is one of many military working dogs stationed in Northern Iraq whose primary mission is to assist military personnel keeping Iraqi and U.S. citizens and personnel safe on missions. Dogs keep this tradition of service alive and well, a tradition dating back to the American Revolution. "Our mission is to support units in the division and area of operations," said Weddle. "The dogs provide support such as explosive support, narcotic detecting support, and trackers to facilitate and accomplish the mission." Today's mission can be seen as strangely mirroring the early partnership between man and wolves on hunts, both sides journeying out into the unknown while relying on each other. It's this mutual dependency that seems to never waver. One cannot help but wonder whether or not the millennia of fraternal reliance and partnership between man and dog cause either, or both, to react or behave more alike one another. "They're just like people," said Weddle. "They have their own personalities, sense of humors, and everything. They are one of a kind and every dog is different." "We all have nicknames for our dogs, just like Soldiers," Weddle said. "My dog is nicknamed 'Ritalin Dog', he's really hyper." In return, Weddle noticed the Soldiers in his unit, and possibly the Army as a whole, behave with a "pack mentality." "We come together like a team quickly, like two dogs in a pack," Weddle smiled. "The Soldiers in our unit look out for our partners and each other. We have a pack mentality." The question of whether or not man has come to subconsciously mirror the mannerisms of their eldest comrades, or vice versa, may never be fully resolved. What cannot be questioned is the utility of military working dogs to daily operations and combat related missions. "We love 'em," said Command Sgt. Maj. Frank M. Leota, command sgt. maj., Multi-National Division - North. "Our use of incorporating dogs in our missions has increased and they have helped keep our Soldiers alive." Military dog handlers show respect to their partners by appointing them higher ranks than their own. Contrasting typical military hierarchy, the handlers, subordinates to their dog partners, work tirelessly for their superiors, according to Weddle. "If it came down to it, our handlers and I would give up our comforts and luxuries for the dogs, because the dogs come first," Weddle said. "We're here for them." A sentiment which, if he was able, Elmo would certainly mirror. Weddle eagerly looks forward to the day his and Elmo's time in Iraq expires, but not for the typical reason. He wants to return home, sure, but upon redeployment Weddle looks to adopt his partner as a permanent member of his family. The bond between Weddle and Elmo, like the bond between man and canine, or the military and it's working dogs, shows no sign of fading. Perhaps some relationships do last forever.