News: Kosovo K-9s maintain safety, sanity of our soldiers
Story by Sgt. Angela Parady
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo - “It can be very relaxing, having someone to talk to while you are on a shift. Someone who isn’t judgmental, they don’t talk back, and they never criticize your choices. Someone who is always happy to see you, someone who is happy to do whatever you want to do, they just want to be there with you. It’s nice to have a dog as your partner,” said Camp Bondsteel’s top dog handler.
Dog handlers from the 529th Military Police Company, Heidelberg, Germany work alongside their canine partners to maintain the safety and well-being of the soldiers and contractors that comprise Multinational Battle Group East in Kosovo.
Sgt. Trent L. Miller is the kennel’s noncommissioned officer in charge here at Camp Bondsteel. He ensures that his team is up-to-date on training, and encourages them to spend time with their dogs regularly.
“We are training for scent detection and odor recognition,” said Miller, who is originally from Zanesville, Ohio. “You train to their weaknesses, like Jim here who doesn’t like to have to jump to get to an odor, but you also train certain odors to their positives. You have to identify new problems, while also building on things that they like.”
Jim has hip problems, which means he doesn’t like having to climb over obstacles to get to his objective. However, Jim’s key role here is to sniff out explosive materials. The German shepherd has been working alongside his partner, Sgt. John D. McBride for the last two years.
“At first he will be like, argh, I don’t want to do this, all slow like,” said McBride, who is from Woodinville, Wash. “But then as soon as Jim finds that first odor, he wants to keep going and just find them all.”
The minimal training required by dog handlers includes four hours of patrol time each week, four hours of technical time each week, and maintaining standards for search operations, said McBride. These requirements benefit not only the dog, whose nose must always be in peak condition, but also the handler who must interpret their canines different responses elicited by the scents.
“There is the legal aspect, but it is also about the safety. I mean, we are dealing with the potential of explosives,” he said. “You have to recognize the change in your dogs’ behavior to know when you are in that very dangerous, very real situation. You are out assisting other units; it’s not just about you. It is also for the safety of your team, the people with you, and overall government assets.”
“With all this training, you start to see the difference in their behavior, and you learn to pick up on that, said McBride. “You recognize the behavior that means they have found something.”
Miller said, how people train is entirely up to them. It is up to each unit, and each individual to take responsibility for themselves. The emphasis, he said is the human factor.
“If you are dealing with explosives, you are putting people’s lives at risk,” said Miller. “You have to have higher quality training because you are dealing with soldiers’ lives, civilians’ lives.”
“It just goes back to the standard,” he said. “His standard is different than my standard. My standard is to go in, know that I can effectively search an area and leave that area knowing that I searched everything within the boundaries of that area.”
Miller really stresses the importance of spending time with dogs.
“We work a lot of hours, this takes a lot,” he said. “You have to build rapport; you have to know your dog. If you don’t, you are going to be behind the power curve. Your dog isn’t going to be where you should be. I mean if I just came in and did the bare minimum, and did whatever I wanted to then I would be at or below the standards.”
“Then, when it comes time for us to go up for our certification, and I don’t know what I am doing and I don’t recognize my dog’s change in behavior because I just do the bare minimum and I don’t spend any extra time with him, then it is going to show,” said Miller. “This is a job that you can’t fake. Your dog will tell you everything you need to know. What he’s doing and what he’s thinking.”
It’s not all serious. To build that relationship with your partner, you have to build a foundation. You have to earn your dog’s trust.
“To build rapport with your dog, you let the dog be a dog,” said Miller. “You take him for a walk. You can take him for an ‘I love me’ walk. You can take him out to the obedience course and let them run through that. Play fetch. Spend time in their run, their house. You will find what works with your dog, and you just keep building on those activities. Rapport and repetition. It never stops.”
At the end of the day, these guys can feel as though they have done the best they can. The dogs have successfully found the hidden explosives. The handlers identified the behavior signaling the discovery, and no one was hurt. The dogs will go back to the kennel tonight and the soldiers back to their barracks. First, it’s time for a snack to reward them for their hard work.
Being a dog handler is a full time job, and is only open to the soldiers who are full-time servicemembers. They typically deploy a few at a time, and usually attach to another unit, which can be difficult. Oftentimes, said Miller, they deploy individually. Having a dog they’ve come to know can be a source of comfort, but can’t always give all the support the soldier needs. Luckily, for these soldiers, they’re deployed as a small team, all from the 529th.
McBride reflects back on the side effects of working with a canine partner instead of another soldier.
“We have our good times where I am talking, and he doesn’t talk back, or criticize or tell me I am wrong,” he said. “But then we have our bad times where he can’t talk back to me, and sometimes, you need that feedback.”
For the last nine months, McBride and Miller have had their fellow dog handlers to fall back on, to help them get through being away from their wives and families. For these guys, it’s almost time to pack up their gear, pass the leash over to the incoming soldiers and take their dogs and go back home.