FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri -- K-9 teams with 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade competed in a joint branch "Top Dog" competition held at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, Feb. 23-26.

Teams consisting of engineer and military police handlers and four-legged search specialists competed to earn bragging rights as the top search duo around. MP handlers teamed up with their patrol explosive detector dogs, or PEDDs, while specialized search dogs, or SSDs, made up the tail-wagging half of the engineer teams.

"This event is a good thing to have because the handlers don't know what to expect, and it lets them know their skill level compared to other peoples' skill level," said Staff Sgt. James D. Parr, noncommissioned officer in charge, 67th Engineer Detachment, 5th Engineer Battalion, 4th MEB, 1st Infantry Division. "This was all different, and it was all getting thrown at them. It's physically demanding and there is environment type stuff because they are going to get beat up like that [when deployed]."

The week's challenges and events were extensive.

"We had an obedience challenge, several outdoor searches, a written test, a veterinary first aid station during the five mile foot march, and on the final day, we did an endurance challenge plus a venue or VIP search," Parr said. "The dogs had to search a theater, making sure the building is secure. They're trained to look for explosives, bombs, or bomb making material or anything of that nature."

The 5th Eng. Bn. has held similar competitions in the past, but this was the first to also feature the MP K-9 teams.

"Specialized search dogs are off-leash so the search can be done faster than the MP patrol explosives detector dogs, which are still explosives dogs, but just have a different name," said Sgt. 1st Class Craig Chambers, kennel master, 180th MP Detachment, 4th MEB, 1st Inf. Div. "We set up the different searches so that everybody has a fair shot across the board because every dog will search differently, but the parameters are the same.

Working off-leash or on-leash, the competition was about the team as a whole.

"Everyone will find the training aids, but if you lose control of your dog, you will lose points," Chambers said. "There are different ways we narrowed the gap so it's easy scoring right down the middle for every team, regardless the dog you handle."

The teams battled each other during the competition in the bitter cold, trying to push themselves and their military working dogs to the limit.

The coldest and snowiest morning of the week happened to be the day the teams ran the physical endurance course, or PECS, where the dog had to remain obedient while the handler performed pull ups and other challenges.

"After running up the road and dropping your body armor, carry your dog to pick up the stake-out chain and then carry them back to the pull up bars," barked Staff Sgt. Matthew Smeltz, a mine detection dog handler who helped run the event, to the competitors.

Smeltz told the group they would then give their dog the 'down' and 'stay' command and if the "dog breaks the command you will be assessed a ten second penalty."

Each Soldier was visibly drained after making their way through the military vehicle searches and a ten-foot tunnel near the end, crossing the course finish line. Some handlers noted that the dogs appeared excited and ready to go again.

"I'm tired, I am real tired," said Spc. Cory Cochran, SSD handler with 67th Eng. Det., whose K-9 partner Dex, looked energized. "Just look at him, he is ready for anything at any time. He's seven, he'll be eight in April and he'll search to the end, he'd die before he gives up."

Cochran and Dex were named the top dogs of the competition as they earned the most points and had the most confirmed "finds".

Another day of the competition, teams had to perform life-saving first aid on a dummy dog after running a five mile foot march with their four-legged partner.

"The cold made me struggle, but I was making sure I was doing everything right at the vet lane, enacting in my head that is my dog and not just a dummy," Spc. Edrian Fernandez, 67th Eng. Det. SSD handler, said. "I wanted to make sure that whatever I was treating the dummy dog for, I would do it the same way on my own dog."

Capt. Peter Downing, commander, Engineer K-9 Detachment, 4th MEB, said the competition showed the passion, expertise and willingness of engineer handlers and K-9s to give their best for the regiment.
Fernandez and his pooch, SSD Mitch, took second place, but Spc. Jesus Paredes and PEDD Roy, of 180th MP Det., 92nd MP Bn., kept the engineers from sweeping the podium spots as they captured third place.

"This competition was a huge success for the handlers and K-9s of both the 5th Eng. Bn. and the 92nd MP Bn.," said Downing. "The competition was fierce right down to the last event."