DOGGY BOOT CAMP - When these instructors bark orders, their new recruits are sure to listen

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
He sizes up his troops with an icy glare. As he scrutinizes his trainees' every move, he wonders to himself, "Which one will be a problem? Who will be crazy, lazy, skittish, clumsy or a slow learner? And who will separate himself as the best of the best?"

He barks out his commands, and they do their most to try to please him. Still, the instructor knows he has his work cut out for him. This group is really doggin' it.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing - especially since these new recruits are, after all, dogs.

The Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, supports a 120-day training course. Part of the course is in drug and bomb detection and the other part is patrol. The 341st Training Squadron trains more than 1,300 dogs DOD-wide. Lackland's veterinary clinic serves as the "Wilford Hall Medical Center" for military working dogs that get injured or become severely ill.

"We are unique in that we don't only train the two-legged student but also the four-legged student," said Roy Sanchez, military working dog training development chief. "We are a basic training for dogs if you will."

The dogs come in raw and undisciplined, and this canine boot camp ensures they leave Lackland certified for a specific level of training, Sanchez said.

Following the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11, "our program has become one of the most important tools in the DOD arsenal," Sanchez said. "Whether it's a patrol dog that protects a base or a bomb detection dog that alerts troops to an IED (improvised explosive device), our program has a positive impact upon the lives of our military members and the safety of our country."

As with any student new into training, it takes time to teach the dogs everything they'll need to know to "graduate" to the next level - field training. No "cramming for the test" in this program.

"We teach the dog a little bit every day over an extended period of time," said Dr. Stewart Hilliard, chief of the military working dog course. "That gives them plenty of time to learn their new skills. It's a self-paced program to cater to the individual dog's needs, but we do have a target to have them trained in less than 120 days."

There are three phases of the course: the introductory phase, the detection phase, and the patrol phase, Hilliard said.

The current military working dog model is a lot like the civilian law enforcement patrol dog: a dog of steady, stable character that is capable of aggression under certain circumstances, such as on command, when attacked or when the handler is attacked, Hilliard said.

"The key to training these dogs is keeping an open mind," said Tech. Sgt. Steven Lopez, military working dog trainer. "You try to keep everything as positive as possible; because when you do negative stuff, all you're going to do is shut down the dog and he's not going to want to work."

Another key to success is discipline and obedience, Lopez said. Trainers must control the canine's need to bite and dominate their prey, he said.

This training doesn't come without a risk to the troops and the dogs.

For the dogs, the main risks are the San Antonio heat and the physical strains of their training, which can lead to injury.

"Most of the dogs are spirited enough that they will work themselves hard in the heat, resulting in heat-related injuries," Hilliard said. "Handlers need to be aware of this danger to protect the dogs."

As for the risks to the trainers, the most obvious are 42 bone-crunching teeth. Yes, handlers do get bit from time to time.

"It's safe to say that a majority of the bite wounds to troops are not from aggression with the dogs; they are a result of accidents in playing with the dog with rubber balls (part of their training)," Hilliard said. "For example, just recently we had a troop who at a moment of inattention allowed the dog to take a ball which happened to be in his hand, and a piece of his hand was taken too. You can't lose focus or situational awareness."

Nevertheless, not all dogs are playing when they bite.

"I think a lot of times people get bit because they get scared," said Staff Sgt. Shawn Alexander, a military working dog trainer. "When a person gets scared, the dog gets scared. It just gets worse from there, because a dog will bite out of fear. The more confident you are, the less likely it is you will be bitten. If you run scared like a rabbit ... well, dogs are like wolves; if they see a rabbit, they chase it and bite it."

But bites aren't the only thing handlers have to worry about. The dogs, primarily German shepherds and Belgian malimars, range in weight from 55 to 100 pounds, and are fast and strong. When they pounce on a trainer, it is equivalent to a 300-pound man in athletic condition coming at you, the instructors said.

"The inherent risk for the dog trainers is we're buying these dogs that are specifically selected for aggression," said Tech. Sgt. Joel Burton, another military working dog trainer. "Then you're training these young dogs to bite and hold. You work at least three dogs a person. So when you're out there catching dog after dog after dog, it takes a toll on your body."

The troops have to control the dogs all day. Even walking them from one place to another for hours every day on a leash with them pulling against you can be strenuous, according to Hilliard.

"We've had accidents where people have slipped in the mud, and the dog was pulling on them and they get injured," Hilliard said.

But most of the injuries to troops happen from wear and tear over time.

Handling a big, strong animal "takes a toll on your shoulders, knees, neck and back," Burton said. "We have had quite a few back injuries."

The handlers reduce their risk of injury by working out nearly every day to stay physically fit and flexible. They also learn to move with the dogs to avoid injuries to themselves and the animals.

Of course, it doesn't help that each dog has its own personality, which makes them somewhat unpredictable.

"My favorite dog of all time was Hero," Hilliard said. "He was a courageous, formidable dog, and a strong and willing worker. He was very stable. On the other hand, I also remember Robby 2. He was unstable. He seriously bit two handlers. I worked with him in a scientific study on olfactory detection. I was very afraid of him but wouldn't let him know it."

If dog and handler survive the intensive training, there's no better day than certification day, Burton said.

"There's a lot of excitement on cert day," he said. "But handlers have to control their nerves. If the handler is nervous, then the dog will be too. We have a saying in the dog handler career field: 'Everything goes down leash.'"

If the dog does not pass certification, he is recycled for more training. If he does pass, it's on to bigger and better things.

"Our certification reflects that this dog has passed his basic training course; he is now ready to be sent to the field to enter the kind of training that will ready him for field certification," Hilliard said. "Field training is what makes him deployable (whether on base or in combat conditions)."

According to Lopez, the military working dog program is more important than ever.

"The way people are trying to hide bombs and drugs is evolving, so we need to always be focused on creating a better top quality dog," he said.

"Doggy boot camp" ensures that.