Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dogs Becoming Essential in Fight Against IEDs


By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer

MARSTON, N.C. — Panting heavily on an open field, Staff Sgt. Boomer doesn’t look like your typical Marine. With floppy ears and a shiny yellow coat, he enjoys horseplay, chasing plastic batons and getting scratched behind the ears.

The Labrador retriever is all business when it’s time to work, however. Guided by hand signals and verbal commands, he sniffs out improvised explosive devices while working off-leash as part of the IED detector dog program, launched by the Marine Corps in 2007 after infantrymen issued an urgent-needs request for bomb-sniffing dogs that could deploy with units.

“He feeds off of me,” said Sgt. Brian Telinda, a rifleman training with Boomer on March 9 in this rural community west of Camp Lejeune, N.C. “If I’m in a horseplay kind of mood, it kind of goes down the collar, down the chain, and he starts horseplaying, too. But if I firm it up and keep [the leash] solid, he stays solid, too. He’s a good dog.”

The program is at a turning point: While Marine officials say they are still working out kinks in the dogs’ training, the effort is no longer considered experimental.

For the first time this year, most infantry battalions deploying to war zones have the dogs — all Labrador retrievers due to their drive to hunt, their obedience and their scent recognition. Oversight of the program was moved in the fall from the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based at Quantico, Va., to the Marine Corps Security Division at the Pentagon, and the Corps will launch a contract competition this year that will determine the IDD program’s long-term future.

Combined, the dog’s attributes make it clear that unless something else proves superior, IED detector dogs are here to stay.

“People always say, ‘Well, how effective are the dogs?’” said Bill Childress, head of the Corps’ military working dog program. “Well, if you tell me where every IED is, then we’d know how many we found and I could give you that percentage. We do know that we find some, and that we save lives.”

TRAINING THE DOGS


Overall, the Corps has expanded its IDD pool to include about 250 dogs, with at least 60 fielded to each Marine Expeditionary Force this year, Marine officials said. Each battalion deploying with dogs typically fields between 10 and 20, with designated grunts working with the dogs for five weeks at training sites run by Southern Pines, N.C.-based K2 Solutions Inc. The dogs and Marines then reunite for four more weeks during Enhanced Mojave Viper predeployment training at Twentynine Palms, Calif., working on advanced tasks, such as detecting explosives in a war zone.

At K2’s facilities, the Marines learn how to care for the dogs, plan for their use, transport them, kennel them and direct them. Marine Corps Times was allowed to visit one of the training facilities in Marston, about 30 miles west of Fayetteville, on the condition that it didn’t reveal the units training there or some of the specific tactics, techniques and procedures observed onsite.

K2 signed a one-year, $8.7 million contract with the Corps in August to provide 112 trained and certified dogs to the Corps, while also maintaining the service’s overall IDD pool of 247 dogs. K2 must provide training for the dogs and trainers, and kennel, feed and care for the dogs until units are ready to take them on deployment. The company also provides oversight to Marines in Afghanistan as needed, and currently has at least one contractor downrange working with Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan.

The first of the five weeks of training in North Carolina is focused almost exclusively on veterinary care. Marines work with artificial dogs, learning how to treat broken bones, sucking chest wounds, dehydration and other conditions dogs may face downrange. They even learn how to perform CPR on the animals.

“We’ve done catheters, blood samples, all that so far,” said Lance Cpl. Cory Tanner, a rifleman paired up with a black Lab named Bee. “It’s all the stuff we need in a combat situation.”

By the second week of training, the Marines spend the majority of their time training with the dogs in the field. The basics include directing a dog to retrieve a plastic baton with a rope on it, known as a bumper, and having the dog follow cues to sweep a field left or right looking for training aids.

The dogs are also assigned a rank one step higher than their handler to enforce the idea that the dogs need to be treated with respect, Marine officials said. Unlike their handlers, the dogs have been training to find IEDs — for years, in many cases — before they team up with Marines.

“When we get here, it’s not like it’s them starting on level one and us right there with them,” said Pfc. Christopher Crowley, who was paired with a 3-year-old black Lab named Gretchen. “They already know what they’re doing, and that’s what makes this process work so well. We read each other, and after a little bit, some dogs and handlers catch on to each other a little quicker than others.”

Any contractor providing IDD training for the Corps must develop dogs that are “capable of searching all types of urban and rural areas, including buildings (occupied, unoccupied or derelict), routes, vehicles and open areas,” according to the Improvised Explosive Device Detector Dog Training Handbook, dated Feb. 23 and released publicly this month. At K2, the dogs train in a variety of locations to make sure that happens.

“If you don’t complete the same task in different places, you run the risk of the dog learning the place, rather than the task,” said K2 president Lane Kjellsen, a retired Army sergeant major. “You have to reinforce the tasks in all the different environments that you can possibly expose the dogs to.”

The dogs also are trained to stay on task around strangers and where loud noises occur regularly. In Marston, K2 Solutions uses a “propane cannon” comprising a car battery, PVC tubing and a tank of propane to fire off gunshot-like noises every few minutes. There were about 15 dogs in each of two different nearby fields, and none flinched when the cannon fired.

OVERCOMING STRUGGLES


The IDD program has its weaknesses, however. Some dogs have proven to be gun-shy once they reach war zones, while others are removed from the program after they struggle to sniff out the explosive chemicals they are trained to find.

“We each have our own personality, and each dog has its own individual personality,” Childress said. “Some of them learn a little faster than others. We try to make sure they do have the basics, and then we try to build on that. Some, if they are not responding as fast as we need them to, we can keep them and work with them. If not, then we’ll adopt them out and replace [them].”

Marines downrange also have reported dogs coming up lame, and at least three have been killed in combat, Marine officials said.

In numerous cases, the animals have suffered injuries to their paws due to Afghanistan’s rocky terrain. Units are issued a tar-like substance and creams designed to toughen up the pads on dog paws, but there is no easy solution, Childress said.

Already, the Corps has tried “dog booties” as one solution. Made of cloth, leather and other materials, they protect the pads, but have other downfalls. Dogs don’t like them because the animals breathe partly through their pads, and they must work with the pads from the beginning of their training in order to accept wearing them when they’re needed.

“It’s a thing we’ve been playing with and testing, but it should be up to the handler, which is what we do on the MP side,” Childress said. “You have to make that call: Do you need to have that dog trained on the booties?”

The Corps also has experimented with other equipment for dogs, including eye protection nicknamed “doggles” and ear protection known as “dog muffs,” Childress said. Neither is widely used, however.

“We try to train them the best we can, but we can’t always say for certain how they’re going to react,” he said. “We can train you and say, ‘This is how we want you to react.’ But we won’t know until you’re in that situation what you’ll do. It’s the same thing with a dog.

“We have two-legged students and four-legged students,” Childress said. “That’s about the best way to put it.”

The Marines in the program remain committed to it. Most of them volunteered for the duty, with many saying it appealed to them because of childhoods spent around dogs. Tanner, for example, said he grew up hunting rabbits with beagles.

“When [leadership] told me about this program, I said, ‘Hell yeah, that’s what I want to do,’” he said. “I’ve had a dog my whole life.”

Crowley said he has been impressed by the dogs, and noticed right away that some of the principles he used to hunt waterfowl with dogs during childhood, such as honing in on a specific scent, apply with the IED detector dogs.

“There isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing right now,” he said. “Once you build that bond with your dog and she respects you and knows that you love [her] at the same time, and you’re saving lives at the same time, you really can’t beat that experience.”

Telinda said dogs like Boomer could have saved lives had his units deployed with them before, especially during a 2004 stint in Ramadi, Iraq.

“We’ve only been doing it since March 1, but I’m starting to love it. When we went to Ramadi the first time in Iraq, it was mostly … powder kind of similar to C4,” he said of the IEDs his unit encountered. “Having [dogs] would have helped out a lot.”

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