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Four legs, one goal: K-9s train day-in and day-out

US Marine Corps News

By LCpl. Norman Eckles | Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow | July 11, 2013

Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif. -- More than 70 years ago, the use of military working dogs was introduced to the U.S. military to serve alongside service members and aid them in battle.

These dogs were used for many purposes during their time as a military working dog; however, when the K-9s are on active duty, they are used for guarding sentries and detecting illegal contraband.

Dogs from around the world come to the 341st Training Squadron on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where they are handpicked and pre-tested by evaluators before going to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School.

“If the dog meets all of the requirements, then the dog will go on to become certified,” said Lt. Robert Ortiz, kennel master with the Marine Corps Police Department on Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif. “It’s like their version of boot camp. It’s 12 weeks long, broken down into five phases: basic obedience, obstacle courses, getting used to gunfire, controlled aggression and searching for an individual through sight, sound, and scent.”

To start a K-9’s training, the instructors use rewards - toys not treats, to teach the dogs basic commands such as "sit, no, down, out, heel and stay," said Ortiz.

The trainers use a back-tie, which is a leash that is tied to a stable object and connected to the dog’s collar. The stable objects are typically fences or trees.

The trainer then starts to play with the dog by having it bite and hold a toy, said Ortiz. Then while playing with the dog, the trainer brings another reward into the dog’s sight and says ‘out’. If the dog lets go of the initial toy, they get the reward.

However, some dogs are harder to teach than others, expressed Ortiz. Some dogs do not let go of the toy being played with on command, so, the trainer stops moving the toy in the dog’s mouth, and brings another toy in to the dogs view and starts to shake the reward.

Ideally, the dog should release and want the toy moving because of its natural instinct.

Through each training phase, instructors use rewards to teach the K-9s, explained Ortiz.

If the dog obeys its trainer and follows the command given, it will get its reward. Toys are not the only rewards bestowed upon the hounds. One phase of the course, the controlled aggression phase, allows the dogs the opportunity to work with a bite suit.

Ortiz added, the bite suit exercise is where a person gets into a suit that protects them against a dog’s bite. After the decoy suits-up the dog is allowed to chase, attack, and guard the suspect.

Using its natural animal instinct, the animal will catch a suspect running form authorities and know who is a threat to their human companion.

“There are multiple phases inside this one piece,” said Ortiz. It consists of suspects fleeing authorities, actively resisting authorities, and suspects that run and hide from the authorities.”

The dogs must learn to be aggressive on command, expressed Ortiz. Given that this is the case, the dogs are allowed to be as mean as they want; however, the dogs still have to be aware of the commands given to them by their trainers and under control at all times.

After the course, the dogs graduate and are the newest members of the Department of Defense as field-trained dogs. These dogs then move on to their new duty stations to fulfill their duties; however, their training doesn’t end there, explained Ortiz.

“It’s just like a service member when they get out of boot camp,” said Sgt. Steven Goss, dog trainer on MCLB Barstow. “They know enough to get the job done, but once they get here, we build them up.”

The foundation for training any dog is standard obedience. Every day, for hours at a time, the dog handlers with the MCPD are training their K-9 partners, said Goss.

“The DoD is also helping us with their training by introducing the electric collar, which could help the dogs who have trouble releasing a suspect on command,” explained Goss.

But not every dog handler trains dogs the same way. Handlers have their own way of making sure their dog knows what to do at the right time, said Goss.

“A lot of people try to make their dog a robot and you don’t want that,” said Goss. “The training between dog and handler is very strict and consistent.”

“I like to push my dog to be more independent,” said Goss. Emphasis is placed on allowing the dog to think on its own; that way the K-9 has the drive to keep going and it builds their confidence, Goss added.

When the time comes that Goss fully depends on his trusty companion in the field … the K-9 will perform accordingly. Goss further explained he tries to put his dog in real world situations as frequently as possible.

MCPD Barstow’s K-9 unit trains their dogs to be ready for any real world situation, and is constantly on the lookout for additional training to better prepare their K-9.

“To further train our dogs, we are trying to get a car from the Defense Logistics Agency to practice high risk traffic stops,” said Goss. “This way we can practice sending a dog in and getting them used to jumping in vehicles and searching for suspects.”

Training across the DoD never stops for service members, even if they stand on four legs. These four-legged warriors spend months, sometimes even years, in garrison and on the battle field, just like everyone else who wears the uniform.

They are consistently training for the day an emergency happens. Men, women, and dogs alike stand vigilant along one another prepared for the situations they may face in the future.

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