WASHINGTON -–To enhance combat effectiveness while encouraging innovative practices to defeat current threats, the Army hosted 2022 Military Working Dog Symposium last June.
The first annual event of its scale, the symposium provided in-person training for military working dog handlers of all ranks and experience levels while encouraging greater collaboration across K-9 units.
“This [was] the first time that we’ve ever done something of this magnitude in regards to large scale training events,” said Sgt. Maj. Viridiana Lavalle, Military Working Dog Program Manager.
From June 25-30 military working dog handlers from across the Army gathered in southern Indiana to attend the symposium designed to provide MWD leaders with innovative methodologies to defeat current threats both domestically and abroad and to enhance combat effectiveness by fielding better trained MWD teams. The symposium leveraged some of the nation’s best K-9 instructors and subject matter experts and strengthened collaboration with K-9 industry professionals, Lavalle said.
Lavalle said handlers must continually update and hone their skills. Handlers were challenged in a variety of disciplines during training courses led by K-9 instructors and veterinarians including; obedience, physical conditioning, conflict management, tactics, decision making, canine tactical combat casualty care, advanced marksmanship and detection.
The training provided the attendants with realistic, scenario-based training that identified current strengths and weaknesses in the MWD program. It provided a wealth of training methodologies to incorporate into their training programs to enhance capabilities.
The symposium, which Lavalle plans to make an ongoing annual training event, brings the critical aspect of hands-on tutelage necessary for military dog handlers. The MWD Program Management Team plans to expand the symposium to other military branches and government entities in the coming years.
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The 1,000-acre Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Jennings County, Indiana, housed the symposium, which featured advanced training in large scale, combat operations, canine detection performance, behavioral training, and tactical and advanced obedience.
Lavalle plans to help the K-9 profession evolve as the Army’s combat operations evolve. Army leaders have predicted future combat operations will shift to urban settings and mega cities.
At Muscatatuck, which houses 953 structures, exercises were conducted in an urban sprawl to simulate military operations in an urban environment.
“We’re constantly trying to enhance our abilities to conduct large scale, combat operations and how to better integrate military working dogs with other units,” Lavalle said.
Dog handlers and their canines trained in simulated areas including a collapsed parking garage, a seven-story high rescue training building, multi-purpose structures, a cave complex, and a dog park.
The symposium focused on Army MWD senior leaders and handlers this year, including building relationships with the Army Special Operations Command Multipurpose Canine and Army Engineer Mine Detection Dog programs.
“I think it's important for us to be able to collaborate amongst ourselves as a program, to understand each other's capabilities and to exchange tactics, techniques, and procedures that handlers have utilized down range,” Lavalle said.
In addition to hands-on training, briefings that include overviews on canine performance and physical conditioning, current research efforts, and problem-solving approaches for dog handlers were provided to senior leaders.
MWD detachment commanders and Army veterinarians also participated in the symposium to experience first-hand the demands and rigors that MWD teams face.
Commanders attended daily leadership briefings on the current and future state of the MWD program. In addition, MWD leaders identified training that would benefit both MWD Handlers and other military police patrol troops within their commands.
The MWD Program and the Army Veterinarian Corps collaborated throughout the symposium and established initiatives to continue improving the physical conditioning and mental health for MWDs.
Handlers will also learn how to treat their canines in medical emergencies as well as gain an understanding of how their behavior and mood affects their canine partners.
Aside from performing post security and patrol, military working dogs and their handlers work with U.S. Border patrol on joint security operations. They also perform Secret Service missions for the president.
“I think one of the most important things is we’re building relationships with external agencies and our civilian counterparts,” said. CSM Casey Freeman, U.S. Army Provost Sergeant Major. “Those relationships will last a lifetime.”
Military Working Dogs’ skills in detection provide a crucial service to law enforcement and other military units. A canine’s ability to detect explosives and other harmful objects can often mean the difference between life and death for troops and civilians, Lavalle said.
“Obedience is the foundation for all military working dog teams,” she said. “A lot of emphasis is on handlers understanding and being able to read their dogs’ change of behavior to being able to recognize there is some type of explosive threat.”
Handlers and their canines must be ready to react and perform the moment they are called. Handlers must also be wary of their own emotions. If Dog handlers exhibit stress or nervousness, it can negatively affect their dog’s performance.
“Everything runs down leash,” Lavalle said.
“Handlers have to trust their dogs,” Lavalle said. “That’s something that we try to emphasize a lot to these young handlers. Because their life depends on their canine’s performance.”
More than 2,000 military working dogs serve in the nation’s defense. Canines spend four to seven months in a highly selective process to become certified as Military Working Dog teams. MWD teams must meet regulatory sustainment training requirements while performing anti-terrorism and force protection security at Army installations, CSM Freeman said.
“[Military working dogs] work hand in hand with our combat operations, not only within Special Forces, but also with our infantry and engineering units,” Freeman said. “And they detect explosives before there’s the [opportunity] for the enemy to hurt our Soldiers.”
Dog handlers form a close bond with their canines, and often become inseparable during missions. After years of service, handlers often adopt their assigned MWDs after they retire.
“That’s the type of bond that they form,” CSM Freeman said. “They’re very close because that’s their partner. They rely on each other.”
Lavalle hopes to continually educate the public about the critical role MWD handlers and K-9 units face in support of the nation’s security. She remains mindful of her role as the senior enlisted advisor for the Army’s MWD program.
“Our priority for the MWD program is to build stewards of the profession by increasing professionalism, improving our knowledge, and critical skill sets to promote confidence and trust with commanders and the public,” Lavalle said. “Continue to find ways to build innovative, critical thinkers through challenging, realistic, and decision-making scenario based training programs. The MWD Symposium is a stepping stone in accomplishing this.”
Sgt. Maj. Viridiana Lavalle contributed to this report.