HESSEN, Germany - They're a special breed - Military Working Dog teams - the handlers and the hounds.

They're professionals, subject matter experts who frequently work alone and are expected to deploy on a moment's notice, often into harm's way. Their special bond helps ensure the safety of distinguished visitors, fellow Soldiers and Families.

Twenty-four military MWD teams from U.S. Army Europe, the stateside-based Army Training and Doctrine Command, and four civilian teams from the Pond's Security Service traveled to U.S. Army Garrison Hessen June 4-8 to compete in the USAREUR Military Working Dog Competition.

Events in Hanau, Darmstadt and Wackernheim tested their ability to negotiate obstacles outside in a tactical setting and inside confined spaces, physical exertion, explosives detection, subject apprehension and scouting.

"All of the events are equally challenging," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Passov, kennel master for the 230th Military Police Company in Wiesbaden and Hanau, adding that the competition was a unique opportunity for many of the teams - the first chance they've ever had to competitively test their capabilities against one another. "This is the first USAREUR competition we've had in years. It's also a time when we can all get together."

"Everything we're doing out here is like things we'd do in real life," said Staff Sgt. Clinton Darrisaw, a handler with Hanau's 230th MP Co. who was waiting to begin the vehicle search event with his canine partner, Rex II, on Hanau's Underwood Kaserne.

"It's been fun," said Darrisaw, "meeting people I haven't seen in quite a while."

How does one prepare for such a competition'

"We train everyday with the dogs, but you really can't train for the competition," said Darrisaw, who has been a Military Working Dog handler for seven years. "You have to prepare for months in advance, because you're never sure what the dogs will do."

"Obviously this is a competition, but it's based upon real-world situations," said Staff Sgt. Mike Derr, noncommissioned officer in charge of Wiesbaden's 230th MP Co. "Yesterday they did a cordon and search." In one event, the teams had to perform their mission while coming under simulated sniper fire, he added.

"It's definitely a learning experience," said Staff Sgt. Erica Klenk, with Wiesbaden's 230th MP Co. "Even though it's a competition and we all want to win, it's not cutthroat. Part of it is just the friendly nature of all the competitors. It's nice to get together and meet some of the other people. We get a chance to talk about things in general such as how we train and different training areas."

"It's also really real-world oriented - things you could find yourself doing in the Middle East," she added.

"It really shows you some of the things you should work on, and you learn things about your dog," said Sgt. Justin Durham, with Ansbach's 272nd MP Co. "All in all it's a really good experience.

Durham and his dog, Nouska, who have deployed in the past to Iraq and Afghanistan, said the teams are expected to work independently and the handlers to be subject matter experts. "Really we're held to a higher standard because we're by ourselves. ... They (members of the Stryker and other units he has deployed to support downrange) look to us for expertise. It's a lot more than just MP field stuff. We've got more responsibility thrust on us than you would expect. I learned a lot on both of my deployments."

Sgt. Ryan Hewett, who traveled from Chievres, Belgium, with his dog, Chyan, to compete, said the operations mission environment in Europe for MWD teams was faster paced than in the United States. "It's different here. Missions come back frequently."

The 92nd MP Co. handler added that having the opportunity to get together with fellow MWD teams at the competition was an ideal way to train, have fun and meet his peers.

"I don't think there's a better job out there for me," said Sgt. Jennifer Rader, who was competing with her dog, Rrommel, a Belgian Malinois, from Hanau's 230th MP Co. "I love it. I always had a dog when I was younger. This is pretty much why I joined the Army."

"This competition is a new experience for the majority of us," Rader added. "It's good to see all of these different handlers come together."

While the teams made their way through the various events, judges, including Sgt. 1st Class Dean Lane, the MWD program manager for USAREUR, provided instructions and kept a close eye on tactics, techniques and overall performance.

"This competition tests everything they've learned from canine school up until their first rotation downrange - some of whom have done it before and some who are going to do it," said Lane. "Most of the events are based on a scenario that they do on a daily basis. They have to think like an MP and they have to think tactically."

As one handler's dog apprehended a "suspect" in the scouting event by sinking his teeth into the role-player's well-padded leg, the judges swapped stories about former apprehensions and showed off scars acquired while working with the dogs over the years.

"I've only been bitten once," said Sgt. Richard Guillory, a 230th MP Co. handler based in Mainz-Kastel who was serving as one of the decoys in the patrol competition. "You always hope you don't get bit in the hand or the face."

"This is good training for us and the dogs," added Guillory. "It's tiring; it's fun; I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Likewise for Sgt. Danella Jacobs, a veterinary technician with the Hanau Veterinary Clinic, who was standing by to keep an eye on the health of the dogs throughout the competition. "I'm out here just in case one of the dogs gets hurt. I actually prefer working with the police dogs because they're trained. We don't get to see them that often - usually only twice a year, but this way I get to see them all week."

USAREUR MWD Competition Winners
After four demanding days of competitive events, the teams celebrated the best of the best with a banquet and awards ceremony June 8. The following teams were winners:
Interior Tactical Obedience: Sgt. Elizabeth Marini and Max, 529th MP Co., Heidelberg Kennels;
Exterior Tactical Obedience: Sgt. Harold Corey and Wandor, 529th MP Co., Darmstadt Kennels;
Combat K9 Patrol: Staff Sgt. Matthew Hoctel and Paco, 92nd MP Co., Schinnen, the Netherlands;
Narcotics Detection: Spc. Joshua Campbell and Chyba, 230th MP Co., Hanau Kennels;
Explosives Detection: Staff Sgt. Matthew Hoctel and Paco, 92nd MP Co., Schinnen, the Netherlands;
Tactical Scouting: Staff Sgt. Kristopher Maranville and Marko, 554th MP Co., Hohenfels Kennels;
Tactical Building Search: Staff Sgt. Jessica Hill and Akim, 230th MP Co., Wiesbaden Kennels;
Top Dog: Sgt. Elizabeth Marini and Max, 529th MP Co., Heidelberg Kennels;
Top Team: 92nd MP Co., Schinnen and Chievres Kennels, Staff Sgt. Matthew Hoctel/Paco and Sgt. Ryan Hewett/Chyan;
Hardest Hitting K9: Paco, handled by Staff Sgt. Matthew Hoctel.

(Karl Weisel is a member of the USAG Hessen Public Affairs Office)