By Sgt. Christopher BonebrakeJanuary 15, 2013
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (Jan. 15, 2013) -- Staff Sgt. Allen, a mine-detection dog, searches a muddy gravel road with his nose low to the ground.
"No, seek here!" commands Sgt. Brian Curd, a dog handler with the 49th Engineer Detachment (mine dogs), out of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Allen's ears perk up as he runs to where his handler is pointing while he continues to search for the "mine" that Curd placed on the side of the road.
He stops and alerts, a signal that Allen is trained to present if he finds something.
Curd kneels down and inspects the find. The handlers use real explosive material that is commonly found in Afghanistan to train the mine dogs. Allen's nose has scored a direct hit and Curd produces a black rubber ball as a reward. Allen mauls the ball excited that his master is happy with his performance.
The mine-detection dogs of the 49th Eng. Det. are trained to detect buried explosive substances, specifically those used in landmines.
"My dogs originally came to Afghanistan in 2004, and their original mission was to find the mines on [Bagram Airfield]," said Capt. Jeffrey Vlietstra, the officer-in-charge of the 49th Eng. Det. "Eventually the program expanded and they started working in Kandahar and participating in the improvised explosive device fight."
The dogs go through a rigorous selection process designed by the Department of Defense at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
After selection, mine-detection dogs and their handlers begin their enlistment together from day one. After a five and a half month training course at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., the team reports to its first duty station.
A Soldier will typically become a dog-handler through a three-year reenlistment, with the option to re-enlist for another three years if desired, said Sgt. Garrett Grenier, also a mine-dog handler with the 49th Eng. Det.
Grenier and his dog, Staff Sgt. Drake, share a close bond.
"He's my buddy, we take care of each other," Grenier said. "He's a good guy to hang out with when I'm on a mission."
Allen and Drake are stationed at Bagram Airfield, known as BAF, but travel all around Regional Command-East to support the missions of the maneuver and engineer forces.
"On a typical mission we primarily support route clearance," said Grenier, who was originally a combat engineer before he re-enlisted to be a dog-handler. "We dismount when needed and clear the route ahead of the convoy or patrol."
Mine-detection dogs and their handlers are usually the first to go into a potentially dangerous area.
"Our dog teams are the tip of the spear," Vlietstra added. "Our engineers clear the way ahead of the maneuver force and our dog teams clear the routes to ensure their safety."
To keep their skill sharp, handlers and canines train on a daily basis, depending upon weather and mission tempo. On this particular day Curd and Grenier had set up a training route along a muddy access road on the east side of BAF complete with explosive material to replicate what the dog would encounter on a typical mission.
Allen and Drake train separately to avoid distracting each other.
The process of clearing a minefield is a long and arduous one. A simple mistake could send both dog and handler to the hospital or worse. Therefore the handler must ensure the dog stays close and walks a straight line through a danger area.
Grenier and Curd keep their dogs on leashes to facilitate this and control them with short sharp commands. When the dog finds the "mine" he alerts and if correct, is rewarded with his favorite toy and lots of attention.
"Working in itself is fun to him [Drake]," said Grenier. "It's kind of like a game."
Mine dogs are typically between the ages of one and two when they are selected and they serve six to seven years before they retire. This "enlistment" will usually include at least two deployments.
When not training or working, Drake and Allen live in accommodations that rival those of some Soldiers.
The dogs reside in concrete kennels with a separate room for sleeping. With the pull of a lever, a door opens into a run that allows the dogs to go outside.
Sgt. Holly Braun, a veterinary technician with the 49th Eng. Det., takes care of the mine detection dogs when they get hurt or sick.
"The dogs are entitled to everything that your average Soldier gets on a deployment," said Braun. "They get dental cleanings and physicals twice a year, ranging from lab work to physical exams and vaccinations."
After retirement, the dog-handler will have the option of adopting his dog and taking him home.
Grenier hopes he can take Drake home when his enlistment is done.
"My wife really likes him, and I hope I can adopt him so that he can stay at our home and hang out with us," said Grenier.
The bond between the dogs and the people they work for is best described as very close.
"After spending a couple years with these dogs, they really become a part of your family," Braun added.