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Wednesday, Jul. 13, 2011

Military working dogs train to keep up proficiency

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Five to six days a week — every week — there’s military working dogs training on post. They find planted drugs and bombs, run through obedience and obstacle courses, attack on command and patrol the installation.

“We constantly have dogs on (shift) throughout the week, working day shift, night shift, all over,” said Staff Sgt. James Tolley, plans and training NCO for the 209th Military Police Detachment’s military working dogs kennel. “So when you come onto the post and it says, ‘Caution — patrolled by military working dogs,’ there are military working dogs here.”

Handlers complete and document four hours of detection work and four hours of patrol work every week for each dog to keep up their proficiency levels: 95 percent for explosives, 90 percent for narcotics, Tolley said.

“If we’re not maintaining that proficiency level or maintaining our four hours per week, if it came to a criminal case, our dogs’ proficiency could be questioned, and the case could get thrown out,” he said. “The reason it’s a little more strict with the explosives dogs is because it’s a little more serious dealing with explosives than it is narcotics.”

Each dog specializes in detecting either narcotics or explosives, but all of them are trained for patrols where tasks range from scouting out a hidden enemy to subduing an assailant.

Training can include detecting planted narcotics or explosives, obeying voice and hand commands, attacking someone with a “bite sleeve” or suit on and gunfire training, which desensitizes the dog to the sound of shots being fired.

“It’s like a game for the dog,” said Tolley, noting the connection between the search and a successful outcome that culminates in praise, petting and a toy for the dog. “That keeps it positive. You’re rewarding the dog for the good behavior and that reinforces it.”

With all this in-depth training, the animals are a valuable resource for the Army at home on Fort Benning and deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

“The dog can run even faster than a human to apprehend somebody,” he said. “You can use the dog’s sense of smell to … find a subject in a wood line, along with his detection capabilities for narcotics or explosives. It’s definitely a force multiplier.”

The Fort Benning kennel includes more than a dozen dogs, with one handler assigned to each dog.

Working with the same dog allows the handler to understand its habits and attitudes. When something’s not right, the handler will know, said Sgt. Philip Hernandez, who works with a Belgian Malinois named Bbailey. The two B’s in her name signify that she was bred at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where all dogs and handlers receive their training.

Working dog responsibilities vary widely depending on the location.

“People tend to use us more for detection … here on the base,” Hernandez said. “It’s not often you get people breaking into buildings or fleeing. Most of the time it’s the health and welfare … or they have a VIP and they want an area swept to make sure there are no explosives.”

The handlers deploy in one-man teams with their dogs and are attached to a unit based on mission needs.

“They ask and we support,” Hernandez said. “They do deploy narcotics dogs. We have one deployed right now in Iraq. But most of the time, (they want) explosives dogs. They save lives every day downrange, whether they’re finding weapons caches, IEDs, tracking down people. Somebody tries to run, you send the dog after him. You don’t have to worry about getting shot in the back or anything; your dog is focused on him and you can be focused on everything else.”

The kennel is inspected yearly for training, garrison support, quality facilities and other aspects affecting operations. Last year, the kennel achieved the excellence level on the inspection.

“All of our dogs maintain the proficiency level, and as far as kennel operations, we’re one of the top kennels within TRADOC,” Tolley said.

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