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.
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.
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.