Military working dog handlers: 'It's the best job ever'

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (July 7, 2015) -- "It's the best job ever," military working dog handler Spc. Ethan Taylor said, as he watched his dog, Alex, conduct an outside training-exercise last week on Bagram Airfield. or BAF.

"The dogs are just like Soldiers," he said. "We train as we fight."

This team supports Task Force Solid, out of the 21st Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The Soldiers and their dogs deploy together. And each working dog handler is assigned out of different duty stations.

Spc. Anthony Andrews and his dog, Andy, are from the 18th MP Brigade, Germany; Spc. Craig Holbrook and his dog, Niko, are from the 18th MP Brigade, Germany; Spc. Ethan Taylor and his dog, Alex, are out of Fort Drum, New York (16th MP Brigade, 8th MP Detachment); and Spc. Joseph Mora and his dog, Lee, are out of Fort Drum, New York (16th MP Brigade).

Andrews has been here for over a month. His dog, Andy, is almost eight years old. Holbrook has been here for nine months and his dog, Niko, is eight years old. Taylor has been here eight months and has had his dog, Alex, for more than a year. Taylor leaves in one month so he's working with his replacement, Mora, now. Mora just arrived about two weeks ago and his dog, Lee, is two years old.

"Out here a lot of route clearance is done," Holbrook said. "It's an entire dog team effort. Not just the dog or the handler."

The team's job is to find explosives. Once the dog team finds an improvised explosive device, also known as IED, and explosive ordnance disposal will disarm it. The handlers are not trained to disarm the IEDs.

The dogs are trained at a training center on Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio. It's a 120-day course, where basic skills are learned and, at the unit, they learn more.

"The dogs, once they finish their training at Lackland, are assigned to a certain installation," Holbrook said. "Once a handler arrives to their duty station, they are assigned a dog. From that point on, they train on just about a daily basis on and around the installation."

Most dogs are Belgian malinois and German shepherds, which come from Germany and Holland. The Army uses breeders that are on a buy list.

"Belgian malinois and German shepherds are great working dogs," Holbrook said. "They have a high drive and have a very good sense of smell. The military has used German shepherds for a long time. They used German shepherds as scout dogs and sentry dogs back in Vietnam."

The team is trained and certified when they arrive in country.

"All we do is get the new handler up to speed on the current techniques, tactics, and procedures, and how we operate out here," Holbrook said. "When we go back to garrison, we will go back to the unit we came from originally. Our job back in garrison is to train, work law enforcement, and support different events such as searching for explosives for the [president of the United States], support Secret Service, and other special events."

For the dogs, finding a "no-good item" is a game. Because if he finds that item, he gets a reward - his toy.

"This is a game for the dog and we make it as fun as we can for them," Taylor said.

There are also specific indicators for explosives and a handler can tell which one is which.

"There are a lot of different things that a dog can do to show you the change of behavior," Holbrook said. "If the dog is acting differently than he normally does, that is a change of behavior. After you have been with a dog long enough you get to know exactly how he acts. A lot of us are able to tell when our dog smells an explosive by even the most subtle changes in our dog's behavior. Sometimes it's something so subtle that other people can't even tell that he is acting any differently. But we've trained with them so much that we can pick it up."

The dogs are given aggression and patrol training such as "the field interview."

"This is when you walk up and the dog doesn't bite unless told," Taylor said. "The second phase is the bite. It attacks when the command is given. And the dog is told to let go. The dog is trained to stay really close. And it's trained and ready to bite. It's less than lethal force. The dog can terminate the pursuit. It's the same thing in the rear. The dog is your backup. He's your partner."

Then there's what's called the stand-off or terminating the pursuit. For example, if a subject runs into a building, the dog won't go in and start biting people. The dog will stop, guard, or follow the subject.

"One of the biggest things that we focus on is controlling our dog," Taylor said. "The dog doesn't do anything unless you tell him to. And it doesn't stop until you tell him to."

Every day, the dogs get out at least four hours a day. And, when not running missions, the dogs train. The dogs are on an eating schedule and must maintain a certain weight. Also, a dog's working hours depend on the mission - both inside and outside of BAF.

"Some days we have multiple dogs going outside the wire and other days we don't have any dogs going outside the wire," Holbrook said. "It really just depends on the mission set and how many units request us that week."

"We're making the best dog we can," Taylor said. "Just like Soldiers, we want to keep our dogs as healthy as we can. They're very conditioned. Just like Soldiers, they have to be fit. They get a good amount of exercise. The biggest struggle is keeping the dogs hydrated. They adjust to the weather like we do."

And a dog's retirement doesn't depend on age, but health. There are vets at installations back in garrison and there is also a vet here on BAF. Veterinarians do dog certifications to see if a dog is still able to work.

"We have dogs that work from 12 to 15 years," Taylor said.

"Having a military working dog as a partner is an amazing experience that you can only fully understand by deploying as a military working dog team," Andrews said. "Andy is an amazing dog and he is really great at what he does. Andy to me is more than just a dog. He is my best friend and will always have a special place in my heart. I would do anything for Andy and I know he would do the same for me."


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