News: Wag the dog: Canine counterparts
Story by Staff Sgt. Kristen Duus
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan- A soldier’s weapon is their greatest tool during war. However, imagine going to war with no weapon in hand. The only tool you are armed with is your nose… a nose which can detect more than 22 different types of commercial and military-grade explosives. The military working dogs do just that.
The dogs, which are all trained in detecting explosives from dynamite to mortars also have their own specialized tasks. Camp Nathan Smith, Afghanistan, currently hosts nine military working dogs and their handlers. They specialize in three different areas- specialized search dogs, explosive detector dogs and patrol explosive detector dogs.
Army Staff Sgt. Terry Young, the kennel master for the canines here, and assigned to the 222nd Military Working Dog Detachment, Fort Gordon, Ga., has been a handler for more than five years. Young and his German Shepherd counterpart Wero are on their third year-long deployment as a team. Wero is trained as a specialized search dog.
“Specialized search dogs have one sole purpose, they find explosives, work both on and off leash and follow the hand and arm signals in front of the handler,” said Young, a native of Chambersburg, Penn.
The specialized search dogs, developed in 2004, were devised from the British and the Israelis.
“Realistically, it came during a time of war,” said Young. “We are a combat force multiplier. On the battlefield, the dog is worked off leash out in front, so if the dog does trip an IED, the handler is safe.”
In addition to being a force multiplier, the canines provide a deterrent to potential threats. When the dogs are on patrol, they are seen doing their job, which is to sniff out explosives.
Navy Master at Arms 2nd Class Nicholas Whisker, a native of West Henrietta, Rochester, N.Y., and deployed from Naval District, Washington, D.C., has been working with his canine, Heby, since spring 2012. They deployed together in late 2012, and recently went on their first mission into Kandahar together.
Heby, who is a two year old single purpose explosive detector dog, is primarily worked on-leash and specializes in the detection of explosive odors.
“He is 100 percent a bomb-sniffing dog,” said Whisker. “Before deploying, he was certified on eleven different odors, but upon leaving my home command, he’s been imprinted to a lot of new odors.”
Canines, unlike humans, can pick up each individual odor in a compound.
“If you introduce a dog to a new odor, it usually has similar components to a familiar scent,” said Whisker. “When a human smells something, we get one scent. But when a dog smells it, they pick up absolutely everything. Once your dog knows an explosive odor, it’s very easy to continue to add new odors.”
Heby’s mission into Kandahar was to search vehicles for any odors that he is trained to detect.
“He was very curious to his new surroundings, but that will diminish the more we go out there,” said Whisker. “He will become conditioned to the environment and will ultimately just be on point- actively sniffing the whole time.”
When a canine locates a positive odor they have a change of behavior, which is the most important part to a handler understanding and recognizing their dog.
“As soon as they pick up that odor, they will chase that odor as close as they can to the largest amount possible,” said Whisker. At that moment, the handler recognizes the change in behavior from the canine and pulls their dog to a safe distance.
Army Sgt. John Christian, a Military Working Dog handler, deployed from the 42nd Military Police Detachment, Fort Bragg, N.C., has worked with his dog, Denzel, for just under two years. Denzel, a Belgian Malinois, is a patrol explosive detection dog.
In addition to detecting odors, the patrol dogs are formally trained in attacking potential threats.
“He’s very independent,” said Christian, a native of Colorado Springs, Colo. “I can send him into an area and he will be able to work toward the odor with minimal commands from myself.”
Christian and Denzel primarily go on missions to search vehicles, but have also searched roadways for various units.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Amanda Lewis, a native of Gillette, Wyo., and deployed from 17th Security Forces Squadron, Goodfellow, Texas, has been a canine handler for nearly three years. Her German Shepherd, Jork, is one of the largest canines at Camp Nathan Smith. Lewis has been Jork’s only handler, which is very uncommon for the Air Force. The Air Force, unlike the Army, keeps canines at duty stations rather than relocate them when the handler moves.
We’ve been really lucky that I got to keep him,” said Lewis. “I get to work with my best friend every day. How many people get to say that they genuinely love working with the person that they’re with every single day?”
Jork, who started solely as an Explosive Detector Dog, trained to be a Patrol Explosive Detector Dog prior to the deployment.
“When we got him from Lackland Air Force Base, he wouldn’t even play tug with you, let alone bite somebody,” said Lewis.
“Eventually we had to build him up, and now, he’s a beast. I would have never expected that out of him two years ago.”
Air Force Senior Airman Erik Smith, a native of Iron Station, N.C., and deployed from 820th Base Defense Group, Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and his canine Tara, a Belgian Malinois, have been together for more than a year.
“We do a lot of training,” said Smith. “We train hard, we fight hard. We pretty much simulate every situation that can happen out there. You might have a suspect who runs, you might have a static suspect. You never know what’s going to happen, so we train for every type of scenario.”
In addition to training, patrols and explosive detection, the canines are a good presence for Soldiers in a deployment.
“The benefits of having a dog on camp are it’s a morale booster,” said Smith. “It’s good to have socialized dogs, like a lot of ours are.”
One thing that all of the military working dog handlers have in common is their bond with their dogs. Even though the canines are a tool for the military, they are still “man’s best friend.” The handlers spend nearly every waking hour with their dogs, training, learning from them and playing with them.
“Just watching your dog, knowing that they are an animal but that you’ve trained them in this area where it’s not their natural stimuli is awesome,” said Smith. “They don’t naturally sniff explosives. So they use their prey drive to bring out these unnatural stimuli.”
“They have that unforgiving and completely loyal behavior that you can’t get anywhere else,” concluded Christian. “It’s awesome to have that companionship, especially on deployment.”