JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (May 23, 20121) -- They make this job look easy. But make no mistake, without extensive and continuous training, the Army wouldn't have any military working dogs.
Many consider the dog-handler profession to be an art form as there are so many nuances that the human must be able to interpret. Indeed, not just anyone can step in and perform the job. The hours are long, and the missions require the kind of autonomy that not everyone is mature enough to handle. Then, there are the dogs, which have distinct personalities just like humans do.
The practice of using dogs for hunting is not a modern concept. Ancient cave hieroglyphics depict the animals alongside humans. Surviving Persian and Assyrian documents demonstrate those civilizations' use of the animals during battle. Archaeological digs have even uncovered armor worn by dogs. And, Napoleon used them as guard dogs chained to the walls of Alexandria to ward off attackers.
According to War Dogs: Canines in Combat, by Michael G. Lemish, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the commander of a cavalry troop took a dog named Don with him on every patrol, preventing any ambush. The commander said, "Dogs are the only scouts that can secure a small detachment against ambush in these tropical jungles."
The idea of specific military working dog-training programs did not become popular until World War I. Germany and the United Kingdom both implemented dog-training programs in the early 20th century. Aside from the sentry and messenger roles they provided for military units, dogs aided the Red Cross in helping locate wounded soldiers on the front lines. Known as "mercy dogs," these animals would find incapacitated wounded soldiers and alert handlers by bringing back a piece of clothing or displaying other signals.
By World War II, the U.S. military was officially training dogs as well. The War Dog Program was stood up in 1943 with the building of a training center in Front Royal, Va., and the requisition of 11,000 dogs. The program supported almost every major subsequent conflict and eventually evolved into training dogs for law enforcement.
In 1965, the Air Force prepped 40 handler-and-dog teams at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for missions in Vietnam. The success of these teams, combined with those working in U.S. law enforcement agencies throughout the United States, would prompt the formation of the Air Force Security Police Dog Training School in 1967 at Lackland AFB. Throughout the next four decades, the program would grow into its current configuration as the Air Force Security Forces Center, Army Veterinary Corps and the 341st Training Squadron, the proponent for all things associated with military working dogs, to include a breeding program.
The squadron also implemented an adoption program in 2000 after Congress introduced the Robby Law. Until its passage, working dogs that could no longer provide service due to injury or age were euthanized, regardless of their temperament or loyal service. The Robby Law changed this procedure to allow service dogs to be adopted by private citizens, provided the dogs pass particular behavior assessments. However, the law prohibits adopted former service dogs from being used in a service capacity again.
With a second kennel facility located on Medina Annex about a mile away, Lackland AFB has approximately 900 dogs at any given time. The squadron's school trains about 270 multipurpose dogs a year, according to school officials. Not only does the school train new dogs, but it trains handlers and supervisors as well.
The school, which trains all the Department of Defense's K-9 personnel, offers the Specialized Dog Course (for dogs dealing with explosives or narcotics), Dog Handler's Course, Kennel Master Course and Combat Dog Tracker Course. The ultimate goal, explained Air Force Maj. William Roberts, the commander of the 341st Training Squadron, USAF, is to produce a dog that patrols and detects, either narcotics or explosives.
"You never want to confuse the two materials. When the dog alerts to a detection, you want to know exactly which material you're dealing with, because you handle those situations very differently," he said.
In the Dog Handler's Course, for new working-dog handlers, experienced dogs help train the students. Instructors said they use dogs, known as training aids, that already understand commands. Once handlers graduate from the course, they go out into the force and are assigned a dog at their unit.
The Specialized Search Dog Course is a 93-day program that trains students and dogs together. Seventy-six days are conducted at Lackland AFB, and the other 17 days are at Yuma, Ariz. The training ultimately teaches the dogs off-leash capabilities to search for and detect explosives. This capability gives the handler increased standoff distance in the event of a detonation. It also allows for faster search time, as the dog is not constrained by the handler.
The Kennel Master Course is for management and supervision of programs. The 17-day course trains those who are responsible for running kennels and supervising training.
The Combat Tracker Dog Course is relatively new, having graduated its first class - five Marines and their dogs - in April 2010. In an effort to combat the prevalence of improvised explosive devices downrange, these dogs are trained to go from a location where an ambush or IED detonation took place and track back to the perpetrator. The ultimate goal is to locate the person who planted the IED or conducted the ambush and neutralize the threat from happening again. This course is expected to produce 10 teams per year.
To keep up with the demand for trained dogs, the school uses a variety of procurement methods, including its own breeding program. The suitability rate runs around 50 percent. In other words, to produce 100 serviceable dogs per year, the program will attempt to train about 200.
Roberts said school personnel look for several characteristics and traits in potential military working dogs. "Some lines of dogs might have problems with their hips, spine, elbows, etc.," he said, adding that personality characteristics are also important.
Tech Sgt. Michael Iverson, an instructor at the training school, explained that all the dogs go through a training assessment to ensure they have the right kind of temperament and acumen to be a working dog. The training program uses "clear signals training," meaning dogs don't always need a physical reward. Furthermore, the timing of that physical reward isn't so critical.
"Just with the simple use of the word 'yes,' the dog knows what it's being rewarded for, rather than [the handler] worrying about giving a tangible reward to the dog at the immediate moment it performs the task properly," Iverson said. Essentially, the verbal reward becomes as effective positive reinforcement to the dog as a tangible reward.
"The use of verbal rewards expedites training and really focuses on the critical parts, so the dogs know exactly what they're being rewarded for. For example, when a handler tells a dog to sit and it sits, immediately the handler verbalizes the 'yes' reward when the dog reaches a full sit position," he said, adding that the single word takes the place of a treat or toy.
All of the dog training is based on positive reward or feedback, the epitome of the classical conditioning model developed by Ivan Pavlov. When the dogs maneuver through one obstacle successfully, they are rewarded. Then, they maneuver two obstacles and are rewarded, so training builds upon previous lessons. Iverson said that eventually, the dogs will do the entire obstacle course without a reward until the end, which is how trainers develop the dogs' instincts to want the reward.
This instinct or desire is crucial to the dogs' motivation, he explained. "When dogs get assigned to field units, they want a dog that's motivated, really wants to do the task and is really happy to do it - all through reward-based systems. Of course, all these rewards must be instinctive prior to their certification. They have to be able to do this without any reinforcement - other than the handler's praise and affection."
A Unique Bond
Every military working dog is an NCO - in tradition at least. Some say the custom was to prevent handlers from mistreating their dogs; hence, a dog is always one rank higher than its handler.
"That's out of respect," said Sgt. 1st Class Regina Johnson, operations superintendent at the Military Working Dog School. "I see it all the time, especially in these young handlers. They make the mistake of thinking they're actually in charge. You've got to tell them, 'Hold up. That dog has trained 100 students. That dog is trying to tell you something.' I think the tradition grew out of a few handlers recognizing the dog as their partner."
Johnson said some "non-dog people" get offended when animals receive honors normally reserved for humans, but the tradition seems to be growing stronger. A quick search on the Army website will yield several recent stories about military working dogs receiving promotions, medals and funeral ceremonies with military honors.
The fact is these dogs and handlers save lives. "The more we're out there with the combat commanders, they see. They see that the dog just saved their Soldiers' lives. That dog just saved that entire platoon," Johnson emphasized.
"I think the rank is just a tradition. Of course, it's not recognized by the Army, but it's always something nice to be able to say this is something my dog did," she said.
Instructors say that handlers are there to make sure the dog gets food, water and rest. The handlers are there to motivate the dog when it's tired and ready to quit. The dog is the worker bee of the team. Perhaps the most important part of the bond is that handlers are there to translate what the dog is saying.
Johnson said that the dogs aren't just U.S. government property. "These dogs are our partners. I remember trying to get into the K-9 program, and I had a human partner working in law enforcement at the time who commented to me that he couldn't believe I would choose to work with a dog over a human partner, a big strong guy as a partner."
For example, responding to a call about a guy with a knife, a human partner might think, "Oh, it's just a guy with a knife. But, I've got a gun." Johnson said a dog partner doesn't make those kinds of judgments. The dog is listening to its handler, who may tell it to bite the guy or not. What's actually occurring is irrelevant to the dog.
"There's no doubt about my dog: Number one, he will protect me. Number two, he will find a bomb," she said.
She said other dog lovers understand. "That bond between you and the dog, there's nothing else like it. I would totally trust my life with a dog."
When she was leaving for a new duty station and saying her goodbyes, Johnson said one of her Soldiers became emotional. Johnson patted her on the back and told her that it wasn't a big deal. The next day, Johnson went to the kennel to tell her dog goodbye.
"It was the dog I deployed with in Iraq. I walk out, and I'm bawling - bawling like a baby! My husband was like, 'What's wrong with you' Your Soldier was crying because you're leaving, and you showed little emotion. You tell your dog goodbye, and you're a basket case.'"
In the Field
"It's awesome!" said Spc. Augusto Gil Gonzales-Ruiz, a relatively new dog handler at the K-9 unit, 72nd Military Police Detachment, 93rd MP Battalion, Fort Bliss, Texas. "Most people wake up and think, 'Ugh, I have to go to work.' I wake up excited about going to work. We clean our dogs' kennel areas, feed them, give them any medicine they might need and from there get ready to train. It's nonstop excitement."
Having just graduated the handler's course in January, Gonzales-Ruiz was partnered up with an 8-year-old Belgian Tervuren named Elvis. But, the initial bond is already there between the two, he explained.
"We clicked pretty fast. His previous handler was a good friend of mine. The rapport was somewhat easy to build. Now, we're getting to know each other in-depth. For example, if I'm having a bad day, then he's having a bad day. He feels what I do. Alternatively, if he doesn't feel like working, I can tell."
Reading the slight nuances in the dog's behavior is key to a successful team, he said. "I'm getting to know his signals. If Elvis has a slight change in behavior when he's searching an area, I need to be able to read that. Little by little, I'm getting to know that and recognize if he smells a pizza or 8 grams of cocaine. More scenario-based training will help strengthen us as a team," Gonzales-Ruiz said.
K-9 teams in the Army provide a variety of support, from patrol work around base to searches during health-and-welfare inspections and sweeps for explosives when VIPs arrive. Granted, while most handlers will say they love "playing with their dogs" every day, their jobs necessitate extensive training just to keep the dogs' skills current and efficient.
Staff Sgt. John J. McClintock, training NCO at Fort Bliss's K-9 unit, is responsible for training the new handlers as well as getting the dogs certified in their particular areas of specialty: narcotics or explosives.
"As a trainer, you've really got to be astute when it comes to human psychology and animal behavior. You have to teach the handler how to do the task ... and teach the handler how to get the dog to do the task."
McClintock, who has been working K-9 for 12 years, said a typical day consists of loading the dogs in a trailer and heading out to train in real-world settings. "I'll set up the training area and set out the explosive or drug aids. Each dog usually has its own set of problems. One might have trouble searching high places; another might have trouble searching low areas, like behind a couch. So, I'll target those problem areas and plant the aids to push the dogs and handlers to improve."
Training can also be challenging because new handlers are required to certify within 90 days of their arrival to a unit. Certification gives authority to the team so it can work as a legal entity as it pertains to law-enforcement activities.
Gonzales-Ruiz and Elvis are a certified narcotics team and can do official searches in barracks. If they find something, Gonzales-Ruiz can testify in court, and his training records are also official documents. Essentially, his testimony can put people in jail. If the team is not certified, however, then the evidence isn't admissible, and the case can be thrown out of court.
According to Johnson, the dog must maintain, at a minimum, 95 percent accuracy to pass the certification. Simply put, if the dog misses too many planted aids or responds falsely too many times, the team will fail. The certifying official must be certain that the team is capable of conducting searches to protect the president of the United States if need be.
McClintock, who misses working out in the field with a dog, said he worked riot control in Kosovo in 2000, among other assignments. "I've performed searches for every person in the chain of command, except the vice president - almost every single four-star general, congressman, senator, secretary of state, the president," he said.
The Fort Bliss K-9 unit provided support when President Barack Obama visited the installation in August 2010. One of the handlers, who has since left the Army, had a specialized search dog, and that team provided searches for the president's motorcade and along the driving route.
"When we work presidential missions, we wear a suit and tie. So, we're all dressed up with our dog next to us, which makes a lint roller a necessity," McClintock joked. "It's nice to do that kind of mission, and then go home and see the president walking along exactly where you just searched. It puts what we do into perspective. I'm hoping the new guys realize the potential and how important their job is."
Typically, the U.S. Secret Service provides stateside support. But, the agency doesn't normally take its dogs overseas. That's when the mission falls on the military. So, when the president travels outside the United States, the military provides that support. But, these high-profile missions aren't typical. In fact, when K-9 teams deploy downrange, it's just them - the handler and the dog.
Regular MP teams train and deploy as a team. They train to look out for their buddy. But in K-9 teams, McClintock said, "You've got this dog to worry about. Everywhere you go, you get put off somewhere, and it's just you and your dog.
"I was let out of a chopper in the middle of nowhere, Afghanistan. I looked around, wondering, 'Where is everybody'' It was probably only two or three minutes, then the squad came around the mountain to come pick me up. It felt like forever that I was alone, just me and my dog. I just kept wondering, 'Where am I'' I wasn't near any civilization, just the middle of the desert."
Staff Sgt. Orm Jenkins Jr., kennel master at the Fort Bliss K-9 unit, said he had a young Soldier deploy to Afghanistan with an infantry unit a few years ago. He and his dog went through and cleared a building. But when they walked out, the infantry unit was gone. It had left them.
"As a kennel master or a trainer, you have to train these young Soldiers, young dog handlers, to go out by themselves," Johnson said. "They have to be able to articulate to an infantry company commander what the dog's capabilities are. Imagine as a young specialist, you're being handed your equipment, your documents and being told to get on a plane. Someone will pick you up when you land in Afghanistan. That's what we're asking these young Soldiers to do."
McClintock said the biggest misconception others have about military working dog teams is that handlers don't really work a lot. In truth, he said, "There's a great deal that goes into our training. Literally, we are out training every day. Most other people never see that. When we work the road shift, that's usually at night, so again, our hard work is not always visible to those outside our unit," which gives the impression that it's all too easy, he said.
Jenkins, who has worked in the K-9 field for 16 years, said some infantry units are beginning to understand that dog teams are a major force-multiplier on the battlefield. "In a way, I understand how K-9 got a bad reputation years ago. The way it used to work, commands sent their underperformers to K-9. They sent their bad Soldiers to work the dogs."
Getting "sent to the dogs" was more of a punishment instead of a privilege. Since a great deal of training occurs at awkward times, commands would send their sub-par Soldiers to the K-9 unit. If a Soldier was overweight or couldn't pass physical training, Jenkins said they would send him to work with the dogs.
Luckily, that mind set seems to be evolving. Jenkins and many of his colleagues have fought hard to change this way of thinking. "When they would try to send us the poor quality Soldiers, we said, 'No, send them back home.' We started weeding them out," he explained, adding that there is now a competitive interview process just to be considered for a school slot.
Because K-9 teams deploy alone - just handler and dog - Soldiers must be stellar. There is no squad leader making sure the job gets done. Handlers must be able to operate independently in a professional manner.
"It's difficult to teach someone to go out and work on his own, especially if he's used to someone always telling him what to do and when to do it. I need Soldiers who will not only take the hill when told to do so, but take the hill on their own because they know it needs to be done."
The truth is, handlers spend a great deal of personal time working, Jenkins confessed. "There were many times I would spend the night in the kennels because my dog was sick and I needed to administer medicine. Yes, we had a charge of quarters, but my dog didn't want anyone else to touch him, so I'm the only one who could do it."
Furthermore, if a handler gets matched with a dog that's substandard or has issues, training Monday through Friday isn't going to be enough, Jenkins said. That handler will have to come in on his own time to get the dog up to par.
A lot of the old sentiment came from the regular Military Police Corps, Jenkins said. "It's hard for them to understand. They have a tendency to think of the dog like they would a weapon. Remedying deficiencies in a service dog should be as simple as more training, but it doesn't always work that way."
McClintock said some dogs just might not be strong on some odors, no matter how many times you train. The dog may still take a while to alert on that scent. "You just can't fix it. You just can't make the dog do it. There are different training techniques, and experienced handlers will have many different solutions for that training deficiency. They may need to try out many different solutions before they find one that works. It's not a fixed science; there is never a single solution that works across the board for every dog or every handler," he explained.
It's not as simple as adjusting the windage on an M4 weapon and getting back on target. Both Jenkins and McClintock pointed out the obvious: "Dogs don't have a windage knob. You can't just move the sight posts, and everything's good to go."
Undoubtedly, change resonates from top leadership. In an address given Feb. 8, 2008, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commanding general of Multi-National Force, Iraq, said, "The capability that military working dogs bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine. By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory. Our Army would be remiss if we failed to invest more in this incredibly valuable resource."
Jenkins, who used to be an instructor at the Lackland AFB dog-training school, said momentum seems to be building. He lauds his commander and first sergeant for taking the initiative and supporting his changes to improve the program at Fort Bliss. He said funding has been approved to break ground on new kennels sometime this year, which will improve logistics, training and morale.
"My philosophy is there's only one place in the world where success comes before work - the dictionary. If you ain't about the work, then I don't need you. This job requires a lot of work," Jenkins said.
Military Working Dog detachment activates
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