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News | April 12, 2011

Dogs of war canine unit bring skills to the fight

By Spc. Tobey White , Task Force Duke Public Affairs


U.S. Army Spc. Marc Whittaker, a canine handler, restrains his military working dog Anax while U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Erin Sims acts as a decoy at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan. Photo by U.S. Army Spc. Tobey White.

KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan (April 12, 2011) — A dog jerks his leash and barks, showing his teeth, while his owner eggs him on. At first fiercely determined to warn any interlopers from coming closer, Anax, a 4-year-old German Shepherd, immediately stops barking when his handler gives the command, looking back as if to say, “Well, how did I do?”

Anax, along with several of his fellow military working dogs and their handlers attached to Task Force Duke conducted training involving detection, obedience and patrol skills at Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, April 5.

The training had three parts. The first involved a detection demonstration where the dog had to find an explosive in a building. 

To complicate things, the scenario incorporated real-life distractions, to get the dog accustomed to such stimuli before going out into the field, said U.S. Army Sgt. Adam Murphy, a canine handler attached to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, TF Duke, and a native of Carlisle, Pa.

Dogs have thousands more sensors in their noses than humans, making them the ideal asset when it comes to detecting hidden explosives or narcotics, said Murphy.

After the detection phase, handlers conducted obedience training, where the dogs were run through an obstacle course. 

Obedience is the foundation on which everything else is built, said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Erin Sims, a canine handler from Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and attached to 3rd BCT, 1st Inf. Div., TF Duke.

“If you don’t have obedience, you don’t have anything else,” Sims said.

Before the obedience training could begin, however, each canine and his handler spent several minutes playing. This was to get the dog more relaxed. 

The objective is to ensure the dog has a good time, Murphy said. The best results come when the dogs are in a playful frame of mind.

One of Murphy’s favorite aspects of working with military working dogs is letting the dog be herself.

“Watching her run around just being a dog is rewarding,” Murphy said.

Patrolling was the last part of training, where the dog learns to subdue or apprehend a suspect through non-lethal methods. 

A military service member served as a decoy and the dog latched onto his arm during the attack.

“The first time you’re a decoy may be scary, because you see a big dog running at you and you think ‘what am I supposed to do?’” said Sims. “After a while you get used to it.”

Before the dogs can begin this scenario specific training, however, they have to go through their own version of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where they learn the fundamental skills necessary to operate as a working dog. The course is about four months long.

Dogs emerge out of training with the most basic of skills, much like Soldiers straight out of basic training. They are soon assigned to a handler, who prepares them to go into combat.

Going over obedience skills daily is the key to getting them up to speed, said Murphy.

When a handler first picks up a dog, the handler spends many hours trying to build a rapport. In many ways, it’s like trying to build that team mentality Soldiers often build in their squads, said Murphy.

However, dogs don’t think as humans do. To build that relationship, handlers often spend hours playing with them, taking them for walks and just spending time with them. It’s often frustrating and time consuming work, Murphy said. 

“They have to know that you’ll take care of them,” Murphy said. “Every dog is different. It can take a couple days or a couple of months before the dog starts clicking with you.”

Missions can be unpredictable and the handlers need to be ready to move at any time. The dogs don’t know what’s going on, so the handlers have to guide them and keep them focused, said U.S. Army Spc. Marc Whittaker, a canine handler with the 529th Military Police Company, 3rd BCT, 1st Inf. Div., TF Duke, and a native of Livingston, Texas.

“Your dog is as fast-changing as you can be,” Whittaker said, speaking of the need to be able to react to any situation while in the field. “It’s all about how you get the dog to accept it.”

One of the hardest aspects of being a canine handler is getting too attached and eventually having to leave the dog. The handlers spend a lot of time getting to know their dog and often become emotionally invested in their well-being, Murphy said. Leaving them or sending them into harm’s way can be devastating.

“You built that connection, and you know somebody is going to pick up that dog,” Whittaker said. “No dog is like your first dog, but as a Soldier you have to suck it up and drive on and continue the mission.”