(Police)man's best friend: Military working dogs ready for duty
February 25, 2013
For more than 70 years, military working dogs have played a vital part in our nation's defense. Since the Army's "K-9" Corps was formed in 1942, MWDs have saved the lives of thousands of Soldiers, on and off the battlefield.
The "four-legged Soldiers" that patrol the streets of Fort Bragg continue to add to that rich history as members of the 550th Military Working Dog Detachment, assigned to the 16th Military Police Brigade.
The 550th MP Det., consists of 23 Soldiers and 33 dogs and is headed by 1st Lt. Matthew Rowell, the unit's officer in charge, and Sgt. 1st Class James Bockelmann, the unit's kennel master and highest ranking noncommissioned officer.
Bockelmann explained that each of the 33 working dogs has a special skill, ranging from patrolling with the MPs to drug and explosives detection.
According to Bockelmann, the unit was formed Oct. 16, 2012, when the Army re-configured the working military dogs program into separate detachments under brigades, battalions or long order detachments. He said the 550th MWD Det. is considered a large detachment, based on the number of MWDs that are assigned to it. Because they are large detachment, it is required to provide direct support to a brigade-sized unit, namely the 16th MP Bde.
Bockelmann said the 550th MP Det. provides assistance to the U.S. Army Forces Command as well as the XVIII Airborne Corps and other entities; include the Fayetteville police and Cumberland County Sheriff's Department, when necessary.
"We provide installation support as well as support for the combatant commanders down range. We provide them with either patrol explosives detector dogs, patrol narcotics detector dogs or specialized search dogs, which are used for single-purpose explosives detection," Bockelmann explained.
He pointed out however, that there is no cross training between drug detection and explosives detection dogs. Each dog is trained in one specialty.
"Each dog is either patrol explosives, patrol narcotics or just explosives," he said. "We don't cross-train to teach them both.
Think of (former athlete) Bo Jackson, he played football, baseball and ran track. He was really good at one and so-so at the other. Well, with dogs you don't want to do that because if the dog gets confused, and responds on narcotics when it's actually an explosives device, your investigators get blown up.
"Or, if the dog gets confused and gives an explosives response and the paraphernalia is actually narcotics, explosives ordnance disposal will blow up your evidence," said Bockelmann, who has worked with MWDs since arriving at Fort Bragg in 1999.
He said that for him, the most rewarding aspect of what he describes as the "best job in the Army," is the companionship and teamwork that is established between the handler and his dog.
"Soldiers in a fire team, they start thinking alike. When you're on a dog team, you have a bond and there are times where that dog knows what you're thinking and acts and you re-act from his actions. Since there are two of you, it's a special bond and it makes for a stronger team," Bockelmann, who supervises and manages the training and deployment operations for the 550th MP Det. He also coordinates all of the installation support that required the working dog teams.
A normal day of training for the military working dogs includes work on the obstacle course, in which the dogs are required to navigate, climb, jump and crawl through several apparatuses. Bockelmann explained that this is done to keep the dogs abreast with that they may be required to do during patrols, depending on the situation.
"It builds confidence and every obstacle is designed to stimulate the dog operating stairs, jumping over hurdles, jumping into windows, going up steep inclines and walking across a narrow beam," he explained. "They experience it here and if we come across these obstacles in the real world, the dog has no problem crossing it."
Along with Bockelmann, newcomer 1st. Lt. Matthew Rowell also handles the day-to-day operations of the military working dog unit.
"My responsibilities are pretty much the same as Sergeant Bockelmann's, but I also cover down on supervising and managing installation support. We currently have six Soldiers down range, so we also coordinate with them in keeping up with their medpros and other information. I also brief the brigade and FORSCOM on daily and weekly working dogs' status and coordinate with the veterinarian for our quarterly training. The handlers and vets and I set up the training calendar. It's pretty much just like a platoon, except I have two-legged Soldiers and four-legged Soldiers," Rowell said.
Rowell said he has been impressed with his Soldiers and pleased with being selected to head the unit.
"It's really been an eye-opening experience with the teamwork and camaraderie that the dogs have with the handlers," Rowell explained. "It feels good going home at night and knowing that I'm working with an element that no other Soldier brings to the battlefield. It's a learning experience every day."
The fact that military working dogs have become their own detachment is part of a recent Army concept. In the past, the dog teams were assigned to an MP brigade or battalion and they usually found themselves included with the special reaction teams or the anti-drug teams.
"Now, to make it it's own detachment, gives the Soldiers a sense of pride and cohesion and it's also a validation of how special the work is that they do down here," Rowell said.