SAN DIEGO: It was a rare sight on March 04, 2018, to see the unequaled traits and skills of Military Working Dogs (MWD) on display at Camp Pendleton, Calif. An overcast sky hung over a new turf yard, where Patrol Explosive Detection Dog (PEDD) Piko and Specialized Search Dog (SSD) Lucky trained off leash. Marine Staff Sergeant (SSgt.) Shawn Edens (Piko’s handler) and Sgt. Andrew Wundsam (Lucky’s handler) directed these formidable, beautiful animals. ‘Awe’ best describes them charging down the turf for bite work and leaping over obstacles on a course that readies them for the Marines’ fight against terror.
“For them, work is play,” said Edens, adding, “He [Piko] loves to work for the handler, looking for affection…he’s very driven.”
A Military Working Dog handler is a dream job for Edens as he and Piko prepare for an upcoming deployment with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Scheduled to depart to the Pacific mid-2018, those aboard the 13th MEU are prime for forward action, while they train with other military forces. It is the first deployment for both.
Handlers and dogs receive basic courses at Lackland Air Force Base, headquarters for the Military Working Dog program. Air Force ‘doggy school’, supported by the Department of Defense, breeds and trains select dogs and dog handlers for duty. Once a dog receives certification, they transition to an expeditionary unit that trains to forward deploy. Military Working Dogs receive specialized instruction once in a unit.
No more are the days of whipping and shocking a war dog to perform independently. Handlers study how to perfect the skills of the Military Working Dog by employing natural canine assets. As a result, this saves thousands of troops facing dangerous, turbulent conflicts. A handler builds a bond, not of fear, but love and trust.
Achievement is ours, not mine.
It wasn’t exactly magical when Edens, an experienced handler and former Chief Trainer and Kennel Master out of Quantico, first met Patrol Explosive Detection Dog Piko, a full-bred German Shepherd, at Camp Pendleton. Just under three years old, Edens describes him as “puppy wild, sporadic, fun-loving.” Piko had stepped in his not so flowery deposits and when he jumped up on the kennel door, it pushed poop all over Edens’ uniform.
”I gave him a bath and took him out. From that point forward it was a really good match. We have similar personalities, which is something we look for when we match dogs to handlers,” says Edens.
Patrol Explosive Detection Dogs sniff out a comprehensive array of military and homemade explosives using olfactory receptors far superior to ours. A human has 5 million olfactory receptors versus 225 million in a German Shepherd, like Piko. Hence, they own a superhuman hidden weapons sniffer.
Specialized Search Dogs, like Lucky, take verbal and physical commands off leash. A typical Specialized Search Dog can go out approximately 200 yards without any assistance from the handler.
“That’s giving you that much distance from danger at the time, and the dog can let you know ‘hey, there is something here.’”
‘Something there’ is what Lucca, a Marine Specialized Search Dog, took the hit for in March 2012, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. An IED detonated under Lucca and she lost her leg. Lucca and her handler, Cpl. Juan Rodriguez, led patrols for over 400 missions and protected thousands of troops.
For her six years of unequivocal service, she received the PDSA Dickin Medal – stated by PDSA as;
“the highest award any animal in the world can achieve while serving in military conflict.”
Military Working Dogs are given humane tasks that do the most good.
In the Marine Corps, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retrievers are typical breeds acquired. They also use German Shorthair and Edens has even seen poodles. Superhuman abilities make dogs ideal for a variety of military specialties.
Some Military Working Dogs are trained for detecting narcotics and are dual certified for patrol. The Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego searches hundreds of recruit family cars weekly for narcotics, explosives, and weapons. A surprising amount of medical marijuana and suspicious packages come into the depot.
With their acute senses of sound, scent, and sight, Scout dogs serve as valuable enemy alert systems, more subdued in nature, in order to get along with Friendlies.
Among Military Working Dogs, Sentry Dogs are among the more aggressive breeds.
Their function is to detect and attack command anyone but their handler and those who care for them. Anywhere security needs to be maintained, a Sentry Dog proves valuable. They work on a short leash and learn to warn by growling and barking, and therefore scare potential intruders into re-thinking a confrontation.
Radio-controlled Specialized Search Dogs are pushed out, while the handler stands back and gives directions on which way to go. On the dog harness is a radio.
A Combat Tracker Dog tracks down a person who leaves the explosives other specialized dogs detect.
“I’ve seen people getting tracked through the woods, on the concrete, then a car driving [off]. The dog still follows a couple miles down the road until they find the person,” informed Edens.
Multi-purpose Military Working Dogs have triple-certifications for explosive detection, patrol, and tracking. They operate off leash and are only used with Special Forces i.e.: Marines Special Operations Command (MARSOC).
Each dog needs to understand their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). For instance, at the command of its handler, the patrol dog trains to press an attack with the aggressiveness of a sentry dog, but unlike the sentry dog, the attack is able to be stopped anytime, making it non-lethal.
Teaching Military Working Dogs to detect changing threats in the fight against terror.
Edens appreciates the opportunity to train with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in order to imprint new odors concocted by whatever enemy the Marines must confront. And it’s not just explosives, but teaching the dogs different skills.
‘We simulated an assault on a compound that didn’t have a wall or an entrance to it. I had to put Piko on my shoulders and climb a ladder. It took some training to get him to that point,” says Edens.
External stimuli, such as artillery and arms fire, are hurdles to clear. A handler must consider getting on an aircraft in close proximity to people, the effects of rotor wash, and the press of detection at a very quick pace.
“If training in a sterile environment all the time, the dog can get thrown off in a new environment. Doing detection in a closed room, compared to doing it with a lot of gunfire, is completely different.”
A handler’s watch is their dog, 24/7. They rise up, ingrain discipline, hone formidable skills, play, and put them to bed.
Marines have to find the right match between dog and handler.
It’s not always easy to match dog and handler. The scars on Edens’ arms remind. Edens had previously sought to work with an aggressive dog. While progress was made at first the dog bit Edens three times. Another handler was also bit, making the risk to the marines too great for a dependable rapport.
Training ended, leaving a sadness that lingers.
Many dogs and handlers were killed and injured in war zones serving their county. We grieve the numbers. MWDs have forward deployed in military operations as early as World War I. But unlike their compatriots of yesteryear, better understanding, advanced training and veterinary care, a structured retirement – all add up to more success, less loss, and no leaving any dogs behind.
Sgt. Christopher J. Sandbeck, a recently transitioned Marine and former handler, served in Kuwait and Iraq 2015-2016 as part of a crisis response team with Patrol Explosive Detection Dog Largo.
“We’re an asset, there to lessen the probability of the enemy defeating with some type of explosive or personnel. They are definitely afraid of them [the dogs] because we’re the number one threat against IEDs.”
When Largo retired to Colorado with a friend, Sandbeck realized,
“Patience is a big quality when it comes to dog training…and kind of taking a breath and relaxing. You start getting frustrated with something or having a bad day and you look at that dog and say, ‘That really didn’t matter. They can bring out the best qualities in you.”
Courage, leadership, and responsibility.
Four paws and a set of boots hit the uncertain ground first with Marines troop movement. Mutual trust is in every step, ‘I’ve got your back and you have mine’.
Edens strives to be as effective as possible in real operations…
“The people that I’m supporting are reliant on me to be able to do what my dog is capable of. I have to be visually aware of what’s going on and possibly see indicators of explosives, as well as my dog detecting them. It may be that I step over it and I don’t actually trigger it, but somebody else behind me does.”
“…It provides the people I’m working with a sense of security so that they’re better able to operate on their actual mission. You have to consider what’s at risk – it’s not a typical job,” says Edens.
For the Marines’ hero Military Working Dogs of 1st Law Enforcement Battalion (1st LEBN), I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) – a Kong toy and loving praise reward a job well-done. In Piko’s case – McDonald’s fries are a special treat as well.
Military Working Dogs ask so little, yet leave tracks of selfless service in the fight against terror.
“I always have a good time being out there with him,” says Edens. Although wars are fought with weapons, they are won by men and women and their ever-faithful canine companions.”
OCEANSIDE, Calif., April 04, 2018. Patriot Profiles – Specialized Search Dog Lucky, Camp Pendleton. Video Jeanne McKinney