Marine Corps News|by LCpls Brian Marion and Jason Hernandez
AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — Dogs have served in nearly every major conflict in human history. The Romans deployed entire company-sized formations of dogs and armies in medieval Britain used dogs to pull armored horsemen off their mounts for infantrymen to kill with ease. During World War I, the Belgian army used dogs to tow machine-gun carriages and canines have been in action with U.S. forces since the birth of the nation.
That tradition continues today in Iraq’s Al Anbar province where military working dogs are hard at work detecting explosives, sniffing out drugs, tracking down potential enemies, and serving as an extra set of eyes and ears on patrols.
“We use these working dogs for a variety of counter-insurgent, counter-[improvised explosive device] and force protection roles,” said Sgt. Elijah S. Prudhomme, a kennel master with Task Force Military Police, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. “They help us seek out dangerous materials while putting the Marines at as little risk as possible.”
They may be animals, but the dogs display just as much discipline as their Marine handlers. Able to operate without a leash, the dogs show initiative, communications skills and, when necessary, ruthless aggression.
They’ve been trained on how to “sniff out” hazardous substances and point out the locations of these hazardous materials to their handlers. It is also not uncommon to watch a dog sweeping an open area in a tight, scanning formation dozens of yards away from its master.
“They’re also highly trained on how to attack and take down an opponent,” said Prudhomme. “We train them on that regularly to ensure that our Marines have a dog well-trained on how to non-lethally remove a threat.”
To show off their dogs’ prowess, the TFMP dog handlers put on a military working dog demonstration for the Marines of the Multi National Force – West command element aboard Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, May 26, 2009. The handlers and their canine companions showed off their search and discovery techniques around buildings and vehicles, but the most intense part of the demonstration had a bit more bite.
To cap off the half hour-long demonstration, Prudhomme donned a protective set and attempted to ‘flee’ from another handler and his dog. In response, Diva, a German Sheppard combat tracker dog, was let off the leash and sent in pursuit. Latching on to Prudhomme, Diva was able to wrestle the much larger and heavier man to the ground within seconds. A simple voice command from her handler stopped the attack, and Diva returned to her master’s side.
“It was a lot of fun being the victim in the bite suit,” said Navy Lt. Chris Martin, the battalion chaplain for TFMP who has volunteered to be ‘attacked’ during an earlier training evolution. “It’s neat to see what the dogs can do and feel the type of force they hit you with. The impact feels like someone suddenly grabbing your arm and pulling you down to the ground.”
Getting the dogs into prime condition is no simple feat. The handlers spend almost every waking moment of the day with their dogs to establish the bonds and reinforce the skills necessary to make the animals an essential part of the ongoing mission in Iraq.
“Most people think we sit around and play with the dogs the entire time, but we don’t,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Danielle Kubit, master-at-arms for TFMP’s military working dog section. “It isn’t easy training. It takes a lot of hard work to train the dogs and you have to start with baby steps.”
According to Kubit, each day involves hours of training and reinforcement of skills to keep the dogs at their peak. Military working dog detachments are scattered throughout the Al Anbar province to support MNF-W operations, and at any given time, can be found conducting searches, out on patrols with Iraqi and Marine forces, or simply standing by for the call to leap into action.
Serving in Iraq presents a unique set of challenges for the dog handlers most people wouldn’t imagine, and that involves taking care of the dogs in the brutal Iraq heat. Unlike other ‘service members’ who can verbalize when they are becoming hot or tired, the handlers must look for non-verbal clues from their partners whose fur and body types make them more susceptible to the heat.
“We have to keep themydrated and in the shade because the heat makes them tired very fast,” Kubit said.
Kubit went on to say that the gravel and rocks dominating the Iraqi landscape can tear up a dog’s paws and when the ground gets too hot, it can cause their paws to crack and burn. To combat this, the dog handlers coat their canine partner’s paws with a special spray.
Despite the difficulties, Kubit, Prudhomme and the other dog handlers agree theirs is an essential job and well worth the extra effort.
“I love my job,” Kubit added. “We put in several hours of hard work to train the dogs and get them to trust us enough to be our partners – and we do get to play with them.”