Bringing more bark to fight in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
  • Air Forces Central Combat Camera Team
To counter the growing improvised explosive device threat in Afghanistan, as well as detect the well-established drug trade here, the increased use of military working dogs have become a critical part of daily operations. Not only can they detect explosives and drug hoards, they can actively engage the enemy and alert the patrols of imminent danger.

"The dogs bring to the fight an inherent ability to sense things that we couldn't even begin to perceive," said Tech. Sgt. Paul Rasmussen, the Combined Team Zabul kennel master.

"They can smell things that could be bad news for us, like explosive caches and (IEDs). It's almost like a sixth sense because they can sense something out of the ordinary well before we could detect it."

There are many MWD teams here, known as Patrol Explosive Detection Dogs, also called bomb dogs or PEDDS for short. Though the MWD handlers view the training and employment of their dogs as work, the dogs see it all as a big game; motivated by the opportunity to please their handler and receive a reward.

Their handlers, including a joint team composed of Air Force, Army and Navy, keep the dogs in shape by playing games, regular physical training and running exercise drills. The dogs are led through training in two ways: through inducement, a form of encouragement and the preferred method of training, and compulsion, a means of forcing the dog to seek out certain objectives.

There is a game where they are taught to take a person down by biting an arm -- but not to kill. This is called controlled aggression, and is referred to as patrol work.

"These animals are a very useful non-lethal weapon we can unleash on the enemy at any time," said Army Spc. Joseph Lopez, a military working dog and patrol explosive device dog handler. "The dogs are a major deterrent to the bad guys. Just their presence seems to make people rethink their actions. If they don't, they won't resist for long once a dog is on them."

In another game, the dogs find buried explosives along a dirt route, typical to the real world scenarios they may find themselves in.

"We train them so that when they get out on missions, these scents are easily assessed as risks to us and they hunt them out," Specialist Lopez said.

In one training scenario, the dogs run through a course where different types of explosives have been buried and there are some dummy hiding spots, too. The first find is something that the dogs are well familiar with, such as composition B explosives. The next hidden explosive is something indigenous to the area, commonly referred to as homemade explosives, often an ammonium nitrate-based product. This step is designed to imprint the dogs to the local trends of the battle space.

Primarily because of their increased sensitivity of the olfactory senses, the dogs can smell an odor quicker and more accurately because their sense of smell is approximately 1,000 times stronger than a human's, Sergeant Rasmussen said.

There are subtle differences among the substances used when making explosives, some that humans will not immediately detect.

"The great thing about detection is the dog has the ability to find stuff off our radar," Specialist Lopez said. "We might have intel dictating that we go to one area in search of a hidden cache, but when the dog picks up a scent, it's a safe bet to follow him."

The MWD compound is not only a training center for the handlers and their dogs, but also their living facilities -- and it's an entirely new establishment.

"When I arrived here in November, there were zero military working dog assets on the ground," Sergeant Rasmussen said. "The 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment had requested dogs but hadn't anticipated getting them until September 2011."

Because the kennel master arrived so far ahead of schedule, there wasn't even a plot of space on the base available for the MWD operations.

"When I showed up, nothing was here," the kennel master said. "There wasn't any space allocated for us; there were no tents; and nothing whatsoever was set up for the dogs themselves."

In short, the handlers had to beg, borrow or acquire everything used to build the compound.

"Without the guys actively going out and finding people to help us, we wouldn't have anything," Sergeant Rasmussen said, "Networking with the Army engineers, Navy Seabees and Dyn Corp crew saved our 'bacon,' time and time again. We owe this MWD compound to those folks."

Because of the handlers' networking skills, the platform for the tents was built by the Navy Seabees unit here; Soldiers gave them permission to commandeer an abandoned tent; the intelligence cell loaned the generator used for electricity and heat; Dyn Corp provided Hescos; and everything else was built by the handlers from scrap pieces of wood.

"I don't think people really get what it means to be a (Joint Expeditionary Tasking) Airman," Sergeant Rasmussen said. "It literally means that we came into this environment to support the mission run by the Army and had to find a way to fend for ourselves. If we were going to be here, it meant carving out a place for us and our team of dogs and handlers."

With the compound constructed, it was time to prepare for the missions they would accompany.

The teams train daily to maintain their alertness and effectiveness for when a mission requires their services. Since this is a joint mission, the sister services have the capability to trade off on different training methods.

"Before this deployment, I had never worked with the other services so I didn't know what to expect," Specialist Lopez said. "The thing about working with other services is you increase your knowledge on what will work to train the dogs. The Air Force trains their dogs differently than the Army, so now I have an arsenal of training tools that help my dog sync with me. It doesn't really matter what techniques you use to train up your dog, so long as it performs effectively on the missions."

With training actively underway, the crew turn their attention to the needs of their dogs.

"None of the handlers are here because of the pay," Sergeant Rasmussen said. "They have a passion for working with these animals."

The handler and the dog work together similar to a parent rearing a child. The handler is responsible for the dog's immediate welfare.

"A dog is completely dependent upon his handler for everything from food and shelter to companionship," Sergeant Rasmussen said. "If they get hurt, they look to you to get them medical attention. If they are hungry, you're the one who makes sure they get fed. From the big to the small, they rely solely on us for their needs."

Their means of survival ensure the dog's loyalty to their handler. More than that, a bond between the two develops so strong that it cannot be compared to that of close knit Airmen.

"The bond is tremendous between the pair," Sergeant Rasmussen said. "You are their parent, their groomer, their doctor and their playmate. And they are your eyes and ears out there."

The relationship between a handler and a working dog is more intense than what typical Airmen and a supervisor will share.

"It's more than boss and subordinate with the handlers and their dogs," Sergeant Rasmussen said. "It's about having each other's backs, learning to read each other and not question the different roles we have."

The dogs serve the handlers in more ways than just providing another avenue to pursue bad guys or hunt down potential risks. The dogs bridge that gap of loneliness and fatigue that war brings service members who are gone from home and have seen too much.

"I was reading not long ago about how simply being around a dog can calm a person and lower their heart rates," Sergeant Rasmussen said. "It all sounds very (detached), but when you're actually here living it, it's very real and something that can easily take away the toll this (deployment) is taking. After a hard day's work, I can just sit and pet the dogs and relax."

The MWD teams are a growing asset on the battlefield in the present fight against terrorism. The dogs are not just another Airman on the ground, but serve also as an additional weapon system to employ.

"Because of (the dog's) ability to multi-task and both present itself as a tangible threat as well as asset specifically trained in explosive detection, the dog is a great force multiplier," Specialist Lopez said.