Soldier, dog more than a team
Great article here from The Mercury about military working dogs, specifically those at Fort Riley, Kansas.
Paula Nardella, Fort Riley PAO-Article found in The Mercury in Manhattan, Kansas
It took Staff Sgt. Rico a few minutes to pinpoint the location of the C-4 explosive. Once he did, he alerted his team members to the potential threat by taking a seat. He was rewarded with a red chew toy, which he promptly chomped down on and then scratched the tattooed serial number on his ear.
Rico is a bomb dog, and is handled by Sgt. Aaron Hill from Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 97th Military Police Battalion.
Training for Rico and Hill typically begins around 5 a.m. and consists of problems to solve. The problems are hidden explosives that the dogs have to find. Explosives, such as C-4, normally are used, but when lightning strikes Fort Riley, the handlers use a chlorate kit, which gives off the same kind of, smell as other explosives, just not as strong.
The task of planting the explosives goes to Staff Sgt. Lawson Wooten, who is the detachment’s training manager.
”I always tell them, ‘I’m planting like I’m trying to blow you up,”’ Wooten said.
Wind also plays a part in the training. If the wind is blowing toward the dog, it can smell explosives sometimes from miles away. If the wind is blowing the wrong direction, however, the dog may not smell the explosive at all.
”Dogs have 220 million olfactory sensors in the nose, as opposed to our maybe 20 million,” Hill said.
Future military working dogs are either purchased at around 1 year of age, or are bred from the puppy program. The puppy program is where breeders breed the puppies, and begin small steps of training as the puppy grows, with items such as tug toys.
Most canines are typically retired around 10 to 12 years old, when their noses begin to get less sensitive to odors, such as the smell of explosives. After retirement, many of the dogs are adopted out and become house pets.
Not all dogs find explosives, however. Some dogs are used to find narcotics, and other dogs are what are known as specialized search dogs. A new designation of dog is the combat tracker. Combat trackers are trained to start from an explosion’s detonation point and trace the scent of the person who set the explosive.
”They do all this for the love of their handler and the joy of that toy,” Wooten said.
When soldiers deploy with their dogs, not only does that soldier have to take his combat gear, but also all of the dog’s equipment. Water bowls, food dishes, collars, leashes, play toys and reward toys are just some of the things soldiers must take for their dogs. Dog handlers are sent to Kuwait with a two-man team to help with the gear.
”I had 14 pieces of luggage,” Hill said.
During the deployment, the dog and the handler sometimes live in the same room, which strengthens the bond between human and dog.
According to Hill, cold packs like medics carry are an invaluable tool for a dog handler in a hot climate. He discovereed this during a mid-day mission in Iraq, when Rico began showing signs of heat stress. Hill opened two of the packs and put them against Rico’s body where his arteries were located. This helped Rico cool off and avoid a heat stroke.
Hill said Rico is his best friend, and proves it by doing anything he can to make sure Rico is happy and healthy.
He also hates to see Rico have to be sedated, like he was when he underwent a medical exam at Kansas State University to remove several cysts. A handler never really knows if their dog is going to come out of sedation, Hill said. One preventive action Hill takes to keep Rico from another sedation is brushing the dog’s teeth, he said.
”I can’t be away from him for more than five days, at the most,” Hill said.
Rico is an independent dog, Hill said, and he worries that if he is gone too long, Rico will forget about him.
Wooten said that emotions ”go down leash,” meaning that many times, the way a handler is feeling will affect their dog, and vice versa.
Hill said that this ”down leash” idea is how Rico knows when he doesn’t feel well. When Hill is sick, he said, Rico doesn’t pull him as hard — unless there is a rabbit involved.
Rico also knows when his handler is cold, and will curl up with Hill to share his body heat with him.
”I cried like a baby when I dropped my first dog,” said Spc. Timothy Connelly, a dog handler with the 97th MP Bn.
Since bomb dogs are considered equipment that belongs to Fort Riley, unless they are deployed as a team, the dogs remain at Fort Riley no matter where their handlers go.
”When we get orders to go someplace else, you say your last goodbyes to your pup and hop on a plane,” Wooten said.
Goodbyes also happen when a working dog retires or is euthanized. Upon retiring, many former military dogs can be adopted out. When medical problems arise, depending on the severity of the problem, there may be no choice except to put the dog down.
”That’s, I think, the worst part, when you have to put a dog down, especially a hard-working one,” Wooten said.
Hill agreed, and told the story of a dog he worked with who had to be euthanized.
”I took him in and I was loving on him. They gave him the first shot to calm him down and put him into a sleep, and then they gave him the other one. I’m laying on him, and I can feel his heart beating and he’s breathing and I’m rubbing him, playing with him and then she gave him that other shot, which euthanized him. His chest didn’t rise and fall, his heart quit beating, and they literally had to pull me off of that dog, cause I just bawled,” he said.
Hill had the dog cremated, and Marco now stays at home with Hill in a mahogany box.
Wooten remembered he had a dog for three months and then found out the dog was going blind.
”They had to calm me down, because I new what that meant,” he said.
Dog tales from down range
”We’ve done air assaults,” Hill said. When doing an air assault with a dog, the dog gets attached to the handler and they go down the rope together. According to Hill, the problem is that since dogs don’t have opposable thumbs and can’t slide down the rope themselves, they have to be pushed out of the plane or helicopter and then followed by their handler.
”I was lucky I didn’t fall off the rope and die,” said Hill, laughing as he remembered Rico thrashing below him.
Wooten remembered when Hill and Rico first redeployed to Fort Riley in December after serving in Iraq. On the return trip to the United States, Rico’s crate got broken due to cold weather. Since Wooten didn’t know about the broken crate, he brought a vehicle that did not have a built-in cage, and had to ride to the kennels by himself with Rico who sat in the back of the Explorer.
”I remember thinking, ‘Rico is going to eat me,” Wooten said.