News: Improvised explosive device detection program for the dogs
By Cpl. Zachary J. Nola
FORWARD OPERATING BASE CAFERETTA, Nimruz province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — As improvised explosive devices continue to be a threat in the region as the Taliban's weapon of choice, coalition forces continue to adapt their ways of dealing with them.
Many counter-IED measures exist, including specialized vehicles, hi-tech computer equipment and classroom instruction for Marines.
While all these measures contribute to saving lives, there is another weapon the Marine Corps is employing to fight the IED threat.
The Corps began a test program in which a Marine is paired with a Labrador retriever as an IED-detection team.
The new program is an effort by the Marine Corps, partnered with K2 Solutions Inc., a civilian contracted company composed of former service members, to help improve the battlefield capabilities of American service members.
According to the company's website, K2 trains those canines accepted into the detection program to identify explosives. After the dogs are trained, they are paired with a Marine handler and sent overseas to help locate explosives used by enemy fighters.
"It was back in March when we found out that the battalion wanted to send some guys to Virginia to become dog handlers," said Lance Cpl. Austan Flener, a dog handler with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan. "I know a lot of guys put in for [selection to become a dog handler]. I was just one of the lucky ones who got picked."
Flener, whose primary military occupational specialty is serving as a rifleman, said volunteers were sent to Virginia where they observed how the dogs worked and were assigned a specific dog by their instructors.
"The instructors actually picked what dog the handlers got depending on their personalities and the dogs' personalities," said Flener.
Handlers had to pass written and practical application tests to pass the class. Upon completion, handlers and their dogs were assigned to units throughout the battalion.
The missions of the detection teams vary and there is no average day, with operational tempo ranging from sluggish to fast paced.
"It goes in spurts it seems," said Flener about the pace of his job. "Sometimes we're busy for one or two weeks, then it'll be slow for a couple weeks."
However, the slow times are not spent watching movies or sleeping in. The handlers use that time to prepare the dogs for their next mission, which includes training sessions that can last several hours.
"Just like any Marine, you have to go to the rifle range yearly, you have to take a [physical fitness test], you have to maintain your skills as a Marine just to call yourself a Marine," said Staff Sgt. Steven M. Rogers, 35, a platoon sergeant with Weapons Company, 3/4, who serves as the battalion's kennel master. "The dogs have to maintain their skills at smelling odors."
Down time also allows the dogs to recuperate from the physical stress they endure while helping prevent coalition force casualties.
"It's hard out there on the dogs, terrain wise, with the sharp rocks and thorny bushes," said Flener. "I haven't met a dog yet that likes the [mine resistant-ambush protective-vehicle], but they do well."
The time inside the wire also provides a chance for the Marines to reinforce the confidence of the dog as well as the handler's confidence in the dog.
"The more confident your dog is, the better it's going to work, the more [the dog is] going to go off on its own and feel confident in itself," said Flener. "If my dog isn't working well, I'm going to lose confidence in her."
Rick Cicero, 40, the field service representative for K2 Solutions Cicero, said when there is trust built in a tight organization like the Marine Corps - where Marines trust those to their right and left - it is possible to build that same bond with the dog.
"There's a trust," said Cicero a native of Weeki Wachee, Fla. "The dog begins to trust the handler and the handler develops a great trust in the dog over time. He has to trust [the dog]. The dog is what is going to keep him alive and keep others alive."
It is this confidence between dog and handler, coupled with skills fine tuned during long training sessions, that has resulted in the teams' success in finding IEDs and the materials used to create them.
"We've had lots of success," said Flener. "If [the dogs] are used right, they're very effective."
"They're saving Marine lives," said Rogers. "That's the key part as far as the program being successful. The dogs are doing what they are trained to do."
Date Posted:03.01.2010 00:47
Location:FORWARD OPERATING BASE CAFERETTA, AF
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