By DawnDee Bostwick
Waynesville Daily Guide
Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. – The military has used animals in combat for years. From geese, to canines to dolphins, animals of all sizes and habitats have found a new purpose in helping defend the country.
The Engineer Canine Company at Fort Leonard Wood is no exception to this rule. Though they’re the first engineer company to have canines, the program isn’t something that’s new to the Armed Forces.
Historically, man’s best friend began military service in World War II. Since then, canines have served alongside men and women in uniform in Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq.
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And while this company’s soldiers’ furry buddies might look like your run-of-the-mill family pet, they’re far from it.
The working dogs, as they’re often referred to, undergo extensive training to detect explosive materials.
Two types of working dogs can be found on the post, including mine detection dogs and special search dogs.
The importance of the animals is not lost on their handlers. Without their superior sense of smell and aptitude for learning, many items that could harm soldiers might go undiscovered.
“We’re taking stuff off the battlefield that can be used against us,” John Chris, one of the company’s soldiers, said.
The canines are specifically selected to serve, and while not all that are selected make it through the program, many do. Assigned a military record, the animals are even eligible for certain medals for the work they do. The length of their career depends on the animal, Thomas Jefferies, another soldier, said.
But when they’re done with their job here, that doesn’t mean they’re not able to work in another field.
These working dogs can find homes at the FBI, local police agencies and the like.
Training is no easy task either, although it can be fun for both parties.
“Dogs are like humans, they learn at different paces,” Jefferies said, explaining that it might take one dog a bit longer than another to learn a concept. But the hard work pays off, as seen in a demonstration the company had for local media on Thursday.
Once this canine found its target, he was rewarded— and happily so.
A competition on May 14 will put these soldiers against some of the best in the nation, in both military and civilian life. The working dog competition will test the soldiers’ and their furry friends skills and ability to overcome obstacles.
“We’re going to be competing with teams across the country,” said Chris, who will compete with a special search dog.
This is also the first time the competition has been open to mine dogs, something that is both exciting and intimidating at the same time.
Mark Gray might have explained it best, saying, “It’s kind of nerve wrecking, but it’s fun all at the same time. I get to play with my puppy.”
Puppy might not be the word most would go to when describing a dog with the capabilities these ones have, but it also sums up the bond that grows between the soldier and their animal.
While these dogs aren’t family pets, they are family. Having a partner that won’t talk back, argue or get upset with you also has its advantages, Michael Tucker said.
“It’s a good feeling to be able to work with something like that,” Tucker said, noting it does take effort on the part of the human to learn a dog’s ‘language’. “It’s a whole new experience. It’s a new challenge, everyday.”
And for Chris, this career is an opportunity to do something he’s always loved to do.
“I’ve turned a game, when I was a kid of playing with the dog, into something I do for a living,” he said.