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Military working dogs offer multiple capabilities to Army

June 23, 2011

By Mrs Michelle Kennedy (IMCOM)

FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When Soldiers are deployed, they rely on their equipment " weapons, armor, vehicles and other gear " to keep them safe. An often-overlooked asset is the Army’s military working dogs and their handlers.

Fort Drum’s 91st Military Police Battalion has about 15 MWDs at its kennel facility, according to Lt. Col. Carl Packer, 91st MP commander and installation provost marshal.

MWDs are trained in one of three specialties " patrol explosive detection dogs, patrol narcotics detection dogs or specialized search dogs, Packer said. PEDDs and PNDDs are dual-capability dogs " they’re trained to search for specific items, but they also are trained follow their handlers’ orders to attack an enemy on command. SSDs are less aggressive and are trained to primarily search for explosives unleashed.

“Through voice and arm signals, (handlers) can control the dogs from farther away,” Packer said.

Traditionally, German shepherds and Belgian malinois breeds are used in MWD units, while Labradors and golden retrievers are often trained to be SSDs, according to Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Bostwick, 91st MP kennel master. MWDs are selected and trained at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, or they are procured from overseas training facilities in Germany, Italy and Belgium.

“Most of the dogs are ferocious-looking, so whether they have the aggressive training or not, they are a force to be reckoned with,” Packer added.

Dogs are put through a rigorous training and must meet high standards at the training facility at Lackland AFB, Packer said. Learning to work off their leashes provides handlers more protection, because dogs can move ahead to detect dangers like mines, improvised explosive devices and other dangers.

“The great thing about these dogs is they have multiple capabilities,” he said. “We’ve supported all types of missions with primarily the (PEDDs and SSDs) for their explosive-detection capability. That’s what a lot of our front-line troops are using. Our dogs have supported the gamut of missions.”

However, the training doesn’t stop when they leave the schoolhouse. MWDs and their handlers have to earn their certifications annually, although the teams are tested on various tasks monthly, Bostwick said.

He added that many MWDs possess the ability to strike fear in potential enemies.

“Just having the dog out there, the enemy doesn’t know what kind of (dogs) we have … and what (reason) we’re out there for,” Bostwick said. “It’s a major psychological deterrent.”

Officer Robert Derouin and his 5-year-old Belgian malinois Slatan had to test their skills during a certification Thursday. Derouin was graded on his ability to control his dog, and Slatan was judged on his ability to follow his handler’s commands.

During aggression training, dogs learn to bite and hold an enemy, Derouin said.

“Normally, people are very scared of (Slatan),” he said. “A 60-pound animal can do a lot of damage to a 200-pound man. They’re very powerful and very useful tools.”

Handlers are required to train and care for their MWDs every day, which means feeding them before they report to physical training formations and before they leave to go home for the day, Bostwick said. Many handlers use their weekends to fit in extra training sessions to ensure their dogs are in the best physical shape, especially before deployments.

The care and the long hours MWDs and handlers spend together creates a bond of professional respect " the dogs protect their human counterparts, and the handlers do the same for their four-legged battle buddies, according to MWD handler Sgt. Patrick Pfiester.

The MWD kennel is equipped with a veterinary station in case dogs need medical attention, Bostwick said. All handlers are trained in basic trauma and emergency care to stabilize the dogs until they can receive veterinary care. Training is conducted every three months to ensure handlers are subject-matter experts in caring for their MWD.

“We want to keep our (dogs) in tip-top shape,” he said, adding that handlers learn to identify the specific needs of their dogs.

Pfiester said he learned the importance of his veterinary training during a recent deployment to Iraq. He and his SSD, a 5-year-old Labrador retriever named Iiken, were in a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle when it hit an IED. Iiken was injured and Pfiester had to stabilize and administer an IV during a helicopter flight back to their base.

“We (handlers) are attached to them and we build that bond with (our dogs),” Pfiester said, adding he and Iiken are preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan. “I have one of the best jobs (in the Army). My favorite part is when we’re deployed and we find IEDs. It’s good knowing we’re saving lives out there.”

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