Dogs on duty: Military working dogs offer one-of-a-kind partnership
December 4, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Soldiers train, deploy and fight as a team. From early-morning physical training to search and detection training, the Army's four-legged Soldiers and their handlers are also always preparing for their mission.
"Just like military police, we have a dual mission; we have a combat mission and a garrison mission," said Staff Sgt. Timothy Roye, 227th Military Police Detachment, 91st Military Police Battalion.
Roye, who is certified as a specialized search dog and patrol dog handler, is partnered with a 5-year-old patrol explosive-detecting dog, Kurt, a German shepherd. After arriving at Fort Drum in July, Roye carefully studied Kurt's records to prepare himself before officially meeting his new partner.
"Before you even go back to the (kennel) and pick the dog up, you want to take a look at their records, look at what the (previous) handler has done and what (he or she) has seen; that will give you an idea whether it's a super aggressive dog or not," Roye explained. "It's gets you in the right mind frame. You always want to be somewhat cautious when you go in there, and the dog senses that."
During the first couple of weeks, Roye and Kurt got to know each other by going on walks and spending time together.
"When you're first (assigned) a dog, they're kind of hesitant, but as you work with them, you get used to each other," Roye said.
Over the past few months, Roye and Kurt have been training for their first deployment together this winter. A unique aspect of being a MWD handler is the independence, Roye explained. MWD teams deploy individually, and they are an asset to all of the units assigned to their area of operations.
"Even when we're gearing up for a deployment, we're still required to meet our (required training)," Roye said. "As the deployment gets closer, we start doing more combat-related searches. The handler starts carrying more weight and carrying (weapons), so we get used to doing searches with all of that on.
"You wouldn't think that throwing something as (small) as a 9 mm pistol and a holster on (your body armor) would be that difficult to do, but it could severely impact how you have to search," he continued. "It might be in the way, so you have to figure out where it needs to go. We treat every situation when we train as if we're really doing it."
Gear for combat
Just like their two-legged counterparts, military working dogs are equipped with special protective combat gear. In addition to ballistic vests, working dogs also receive "doggles," which are specially designed to protect their eyes, especially around military aircraft.
"The doggles are for air insertions -- getting in and out of the helicopters," Roye explained. "All the dust gets kicked up and (the doggles help) shield their eyes. Most dogs don't really enjoy them, but they know they only stay on for a (short time)."
MWDs also are equipped with camera equipment and search harnesses, and cooling vests and booties for working in extreme hot or cold weather conditions and debris-strewn areas.
"Dogs release their heat through panting and their (paw) pads," Roye said. "They don't sweat, so if they have problems releasing heat, we have the cooling vests with frozen inserts.
"They're just as versatile and geared up as we are; the only problem is that we have to carry all their gear for them!" he added with a laugh. "We're glad to carry all that for them if it means they're going to be safe."
While the equipment MWDs are issued might seem comical, the four-legged Soldiers know they have a serious job to complete, added Sgt. Patrick Pfiester, a specialized search dog handler with 227th MP Detachment, 91st MP.
"Once we get our harness on the dog, their mindset switches and they know it's time to search," he said. "When the harness comes off, they know they can relax and that it's playtime. They are very mission-oriented."
Just like two human Soldiers who are assigned together, stateside and during deployments, handlers and their dogs rely on each other for companionship, camaraderie and protection, Roye said.
"We have a pretty strong bond (with our dogs)," he explained. "Stateside, where a regular MP will have another MP to patrol with, we have our dog. The dogs are our partners.
"There are numerous stories of working dogs that have pulled their handlers out of the line of fire or that laid down in front of their handler because the handler was (hurt)," Roye continued. "There's a strong bond between a handler and his dog. (The dogs) become your best friend and they are the 'person' you talk to."
Pfiester recently redeployed from Forward Operating Base Shank in Regional Command -- East, Afghanistan. During the deployment, he and his 9-year-old black Labrador retriever, Tequila, often worked with Soldiers from 7th Engineer Battalion, 10th Sustainment Brigade.
While patrol dogs are dual-certified in both aggression and detection, specialized search dogs like Tequila only focus on detection.
Pfiester said he enjoys having a furry, four-legged partner.
"I enjoy the companionship and you have someone you can trust; you put your life in the dog's paws every day," he said. "I like the independence of being a dog handler. (We) try to outdo ourselves each day with new techniques and training and trying to advance (skills) every day. Plus, you can't beat being with a dog all day."
During a deployment, MWD teams are required to find explosives, improvised explosive devices and weapons caches and they assist in route clearance missions, Roye said.
Pfiester added that it is also a good feeling to know that even in the sometimes dangerous job they're in, MWDs are trained to not only save their handler's life, but the lives of other Soldiers.
MWDs are required to assist in important and often dangerous missions to ensure Soldiers are safe; however, having a dog around can have other benefits.
"Even with the patrol dogs -- you'd be surprised -- when they see Soldiers, they're usually not as aggressive," Roye said. "They know when the gear goes on, it's time for work and the (Soldiers) in the same gear are the good guys.
"It's not our mission, but being out there with the dogs with those guys brings just a little bit of home to them and boosts their morale," he added.
Pfiester agreed, adding that having a friendly dog around in Afghanistan lightened the mood.
"Soldiers liked seeing (her) whenever they could. (She) brightened their spirits," he said.