DOGS OF WAR
Since the story first broke that there was a dog on the SEAL raid that brought down Osama bin Laden, there has been a lot of speculation and misinformation swirling around dogs in the military and the lives they lead.
After all, military working dogs (MWDs) are unique in the military, since they are the only living item in the entire supply chain. At the same time, however, they are regarded just like other soldiers.
“They get a place in the line just like everybody else,”1 said Army Staff Sergeant Robert Moore, a handler and kennel master with the 217th Military Police Detachment from Fort Lee, Virginia.
There will always be those critics and activists who believe that no dog should do the hard, gritty work of a soldier, let alone be subjected to sniper fire and worse in the middle of combat. However, those in the military hold firm that the life that a canine soldier leads is much more fulfilling and filled with care than that of most domestic dogs.
Besides, every dog needs a purpose.
“These dogs are treated better than anybody’s dog in the house,” said Gerry Proctor, public affairs officer for the 37th Training Wing at Lackland, where most of the military’s dogs are trained. “In fact, it’s a punishable offense in the military to maltreat or mistreat a dog.”2
This is the primary reason why the dogs are not only awarded a rank—that’s Sergeant Rover to you!—just like enlisted soldiers, but that rank is always one level higher than the handler’s. After all, if a human soldier were to physically or mentally abuse a superior in some fashion, it would be grounds for court-martial. “It’s like hitting a higher rank, and that’s not allowed,”3 said Technical Sergeant Jason Hanisko, handler with the 75th Security Forces Squadron at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah.
In fact, dogs and handlers often get upgraded to first class when they fly commercially; not only do airlines provide the upgrade as a reward for serving their country in a unique fashion, but they also rightly believe that their mere presence helps improve security on the plane. Clifford Hartley appreciates the special service.
“Many times, if the flight’s not full, the flight attendants will clear out a row of seats for us so the dog can stretch out,” he said, adding that both he and Cir appreciate it even more if there’s room in first class. “The flight attendants are always extremely nice and bring us food and drinks, and when other passengers see the dog, they always want to talk my ear off.”4
Why are these dogs cared for and treated so well? What special skills do they have that regular—human—soldiers do not?
In short, their senses of smell and hearing, and especially their loyalty, all combine into a superior ability when it comes to doing their jobs: protecting their handlers and the troops around them.
“They say one dog is worth about ten soldiers, not in their capabilities but in their senses,” said Air Force Staff Sergeant Zeb Miller, who served as handler to Nero, a German shepherd who helped him find explosives while deployed in Iraq in 2007. “Our job is to make a soldier’s job go faster.”5
When it comes to sense of smell, dogs clearly excel. While humans have around forty million olfactory receptors in their nose, dogs have two billion, which means their sense of smell can be up to one hundred times better, depending on the breed.
“Their sense of smell is so good that, for instance, with a cheeseburger, we might smell only the cheese or the burger, but they smell the cheese, the pickle, the tomato, and the lettuce,” said Air Force Staff Sergeant Patrick D. Spivey, a military handler teamed up with Bodro, a Belgian Malinois. “It is almost as if they smell it all in 3-D.”6
“A dog’s sense of smell is similar to a human’s sense of vision,” Gerry Proctor added. “While we can detect a broad spectrum in a single color and see subtle differences in tone, shade, and intensity, they can do that through scent. They could pick up an artifact that we may have had from bin Laden and then track that scent.”7
And they can do it at a distance, too, up to 250 yards away with no distractions and about 50 yards with wind and lots of competing scents. In fact, a study at Auburn University in Alabama, which has a department devoted to studying military working dogs, theorizes that dogs have the ability to detect the equivalent of a single drop of blood in an Olympic-size swimming pool, which translates to less than 500 parts per trillion.
They’re no slouches when it comes to their hearing, either, which is at once broader and more selective than ours. A dog can hear up to thirty-five thousand hertz per second while humans can barely manage twenty thousand, which means that it’s a piece of cake for them to hear footsteps nearby even when a fighter jet is taking off right next to them. They also are more sensitive to high-pitched noises and have the ability to close off their inner ear, which can help them block out background sounds in order to concentrate on a noise that’s directly in front of them.
It’s this combination of natural sensory perfection that just makes dogs—military or otherwise—so much better attuned to the world. Often it almost seems as if they’re clairvoyant and have a sixth sense that helps them to do their jobs.
“There are certain things like a dog’s sense of smell, sight, hearing, everything about them is way more in tune than ours are,” said Spivey. “You might be out on a patrol, and to you it looks like a normal road, but then your dog lets you know, hey, there’s something not right there.”8
Not to mention the fact that the ferocity of a military dog helps protect soldiers. “The intimidation factor of a barking dog is awesome,” said Petty Officer Second Class Johnny B. Mitchell. “People shut their mouths and comply.”9
When Larry Buehner was serving as a sergeant and handler in the Army’s 37th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon in Vietnam, he quickly learned never to take it personally whenever other soldiers would request his scout dog, Cali—one of the few female canines serving in the war—and not him.
Like most dog handlers, he rotated among several different companies, and after Larry and Cali had saved their butts just one time, preventing them from walking into an almost certain ambush or alerting them to a trip wire attached to a nearby mine, a company would request the team time and again. Only they asked for the dog, not the human. “They’d say, ‘Hey, is Cali available?’” Buehner remembered. “They never knew the handlers’ names, but they knew the names of the dogs.”
He took it in stride, because he knew how much a dog could lift the spirits of a fellow soldier. “The infantry was always immensely glad to see the dog handlers, because everybody loves dogs, and the dogs served as a reminder of home,” he said. “More importantly, the dogs really worked, they saved platoons and they saved lives, so everybody likes you.”
It was a well-deserved reward for an often harrowing and dangerous job. Along with other scout dogs and their handlers, the canine team’s primary job was to walk point, out in the lead in front of other troops, to detect traps, mines, snipers, and other dangers.
“If there were mines buried in the fields, Cali would just walk around them,” said Buehner. “You never questioned, you just followed the dog. If she walked that way, I walked that way.”
One day, Buehner’s squad was ordered to cover a circular piece of jungle and push any Viet Cong in it toward another squad, which would then ambush them. While scout teams usually followed a trail and stayed oriented by having one man read a map and another one follow with a compass, on this particular day, the squad was breaking through jungle and brush. The growth was not thick enough that the men had to machete it, so Buehner could still keep a watchful eye on Cali’s movements several yards ahead.
Suddenly, Cali froze, so Buehner radioed his commanding officer to tell him that the dog alerted. The next move was for a few other soldiers to investigate. After staring into the jungle, however, the lieutenant told the squad that there wasn’t any danger—essentially saying that the dog had lied—and to move on.
Against Buehner’s better judgment, he reluctantly agreed and walked only two more feet before Cali alerted again—more strongly than before—and stopped in her tracks. He repeated that the dog alerted again, but the lieutenant insisted that he ignore the dog and keep moving. Risking insubordination, Buehner told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t budging and that he needed to see what was going on out there. But something had sparked his caution even more: The other squads in the vicinity shared the same radio frequency, and he’d overheard their radio operator say that his counterpart on the other squad had heard movement directly in front of them.
With a fuming higher-up breathing down his neck, Buehner asked his radio operator to get his counterpart’s location. After conferring back and forth, it turned out that Buehner, Cali, and the troops directly behind him were the cause of the movement and were only about one hundred yards away from the other squad. “If we had gone on any further, we would have walked right into their ambush,” he said. “Cali saved our lives.”
Buehner risked insubordination, but after working with Cali, he knew that the dog always knows best. “You’ve got to take command when you know the dog is doing the right thing,” he said.
Photo: Lawrence Buehner
“A military dog’s presence brings both a psychological deterrent and a whole new level of assurance, whether it’s during patrols, detection, or the protection of the troops the dog’s with,”10 said Staff Sergeant Jonathan Bierbach, a handler with the 379th Security Forces Squadron who works with a three-year-old German shepherd named Deni.
“For some people, just walking into a room where there’s a dog is enough,” says Ken Licklider, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant who now owns Indiana-based Vohne Liche Kennels, which trains dogs for law enforcement agencies and the military. “It could be a Chihuahua, it could be a German shepherd, they would be just as afraid. When the dogs come on the scene, the [suspect] is obviously in a state of stress so naturally the dogs are going to key in on him and go into that mode where it looks like they’re in an attack mode. But in actuality, they’re just interested, and they smell the fear.”11
“We take soldiers’ lives out of danger, in a sense, because instead of sending them out there to search for IEDs, we can use the dogs to do it,” said Sergeant First Class and handler Charles Shepker. “Our dogs can do things a lot faster than it would take humans to do them, and their senses of smell, sight, and hearing are far better than those of humans. I always trusted my dogs with my life. The other guys I was working with trusted the dogs’ noses with their lives. Downrange or overseas, most people feel a lot safer when they have dogs with them.”12
“Without dogs, you’re just poking around with a stick, just waiting to get blown up,” said Lance Corporal William Crouse IV. But that doesn’t mean these canine-human teams aren’t still putting themselves in dangerous situations. Corporal Crouse was killed with his dog Cane on December 21, 2010, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan only six weeks into his first tour of duty. His last words: “Get Cane in the Blackhawk!”13
“These dogs are our partners,” said Navy Petty Officer First Class Michael Thomas, a kennel master with the 25th Military Police Company, 25th Infantry Division. “We travel with them, sleep with them, and live with them. They are our best friends. Every dog handler will agree that there is nothing we won’t do to protect our dogs.”14
However, the most important aspect of having a dog travel with a unit is simple: Their presence saves lives. “People don’t realize how many lives MWDs save,” said Chief Master at Arms Ricky Neitzel, kennel master of Naval Station Rota’s Spain Security Department. “There are [many] instances in which MWDs have located explosive-laden vehicles or [detected] improvised explosive devices designed to kill or injure U.S. forces, as well as locating numerous weapons caches of small arms and ordnance used by insurgents and terrorists.”15
Uncle Sam Wants You!
Today, roughly three thousand military working dogs are employed by the Pentagon and serve around the globe in all branches of the services. Approximately six hundred of those dogs are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, a figure that is projected to increase in the next year or two.
The problem for the military right now is that there aren’t enough dogs. Even with a developing breeding program at Lackland, purchasing puppies from private breeders, and contracting with private companies that provide ready-trained dogs to the military, the supply doesn’t come close to meeting the demand. The training and breeding facilities at Lackland are filled to capacity, and still the Pentagon can’t acquire the number of dogs the military needs to operate at optimal capacity.
This is not a new problem. More than a decade ago, the problem was just as acute, though the reasons were a bit different.
“Because of the high operational tempo in Southwest Asia and the Balkans, there is currently a home-station shortage of military working dogs,”16 said Bob Dameworth, former manager of the military working dog program at Lackland, back in 1999. Even then, his department was managing the logistics of almost twelve hundred canine soldiers not only for the military but also for the Secret Service, the CIA, and other government agencies, as is the case today.
Sometimes dogs are loaned out for special occasions, to protect dignitaries, or just to fill in the gaps when extra help is needed. “Year-round, on average we assign about eight dogs per day to dignitary-protection missions, though we’ve had as many as a hundred and eight dogs on assignment on a single day,” Dameworth added.
For instance, some dogs from Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base worked the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004. The Department of Defense also lends the canine teams to Border Control and Customs, which helps develop the skills of both dog and handler. However, there are several conditions attached: First, wherever the dog goes, the handler follows. Plus, their duties are restricted to their detection skills, either drugs or explosives; they don’t conduct general searches or receive orders to attack.
Today, all branches of the military are clamoring for more canine-handler teams. The Marine Corps is aiming to deploy over six hundred bomb-sniffing dogs to Afghanistan alone, which more than doubles the number they had just five years ago.
“We are putting in a great effort to get more dogs in,”17 said Major General Richard P. Mills, whose goal is to have one dog handler team for every unit that heads out on patrol.
General James Amos, Marine Corps commandant, agrees. “The Taliban are very clever at hiding multiple IEDs and placing them in the ground,” he said. “Dogs are not the only solution, but overall, the dog program has been very successful.”18
For one, military working dogs turn the traditional concept of warfare on its head. Ron Aiello, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam with a German shepherd named Stormy, put it this way: “As Marines, we were trained to kill the enemy to protect our country. That was our job. But as a dog handler, our role was reversed. Our job was to save lives. And with our dogs, we did that. We saved American lives.”19
At the same time, the lives of the dogs are on an equal footing with those of their handlers: Just as it is unthinkable to leave behind a wounded or dead Marine, troops would carry injured or dead dogs out of the jungle with them, as was the case in Vietnam, even if it took days of trudging in temperatures well into the triple digits, with drenching humidity to boot.
The challenges MWDs face are like those of any other soldier on the front lines: They get shot at, face unexpected accidents, get sick or injured, and have to deal with harsh climates. In the Middle East, the dogs face a vicious climate where temperatures can reach over 120°F. The rugged terrain wreaks havoc on their eyes due to windblown sand, and their paws endure walking on rocks and hot sand. Yet these canines keep going, their loyalty never in doubt in wartime.
One reason: Despite the challenges, finding the bad guys—or the bombs—is all play to them.
Air Force Staff Sergeant Joel Townsend’s partner is Sergeant First Class A-Taq, a two-year-old Belgian Malinois. Townsend is quick to point out that A-Taq—like any other well-trained MWD—doesn’t suddenly turn vicious because he knows the difference between good and evil. “The work is fun for these dogs,” he said. “It’s their mission. If he finds a bomb or a bad guy, he gets rewarded. And I know he’ll never hesitate. Every time we go out on patrol, I put my life in his paws, and so far we’ve been doing all right.”20
The Ideal Recruit
Military working dogs aren’t a recent phenomenon, and new candidates have always been in high demand. According to Encyclopædia Britannica of 1922, here’s what the British military required in their canine soldiers:
In determining a particular dog’s suitability for war training, his physical condition should first be considered. Strength and agility combined, of course, with intelligence are in fact indispensable qualities. The chest should be broad, the legs sinewy and the paws of firm construction. Colour must also be taken into account. White dogs and those of “check” colouring are obviously unsuitable for war purposes since they would constitute too conspicuous a target.
Sex, again, plays a part. A bitch in heat will throw a pack into excited confusion and therefore, though trials have proved that bitches are more apt at learning and are more trustworthy, they are not suitable for use in war. Castrated dogs, on the other hand, lack courage and temperament and are useless for work in the field. With regard to age, it has been said that the dogs chosen for war training should not be less than one year and not more than four years old.21
Not much has changed, except that now females can serve as long as they are spayed. Male canine soldiers, however, are left intact.
The Navy recently put out a request describing the kinds of dogs they are looking for, imploring professional civilian dog breeders and trainers to get in touch about supplying them with candidates.22 Here are some of the specifications:
• Male German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherds weighing less than 70 pounds.
• The age of potential dogs must be between 18 and 36 months.
• Pre-trained dogs in explosives detection and patrol may be accepted.
• Vendors must allow buyer to perform an extensive testing process prior to purchase, to include muzzle work, bite suit, darkened areas, steps, slick floors, gunfire, vehicles, etc.
• All dogs must be generally alert, active, outgoing, curious, and confident. They must display basic socialization and tolerance to people.
• Dogs must be in excellent health with no acute or chronic disease or condition.
• All dogs must display normal mobility at a walk or run.
• Skin and coat must be healthy in appearance, displaying no evidence of chronic dermatitis, allergies, infections, injuries or external parasite infestation.
• Dogs will have normal dental occlusion, not overshot or undershot jaws. All four canine teeth must be present and must not be weakened by notching, enamel hyperplasia or abnormal, excessive wear.
• Heart sounds, rate and rhythm must be normal (e.g. no murmurs, arrhythmia, etc.). The cardiovascular and respiratory system must be normal at rest and upon exercise.
Then there’s this list of what they’re not looking for:
• Over-aggressive dogs that are unable to work around people or other dogs.
• Dogs that cannot be muzzled.
• Dogs that are difficult to crate or uncrate.
• Dogs that exhibit excessive panting not due to heat or exercise.
• Dogs that are afraid, nervous or shy around people.
• Dogs that exhibit sensitivity or fear to surroundings such as the insides of buildings with different types of floor surfaces, stairs, or confining areas.
• Dogs with low drive or dogs that do not have the desire to complete the task.
• Dogs introduced to or trained to detect drugs and later trained to detect explosives or vice versa.
• There should be no indication of hip or elbow dysplasia.
• Any defect in the nervous system, to include the basic senses of vision, hearing, and sense of smell, is disqualifying. Examples include, but are not limited to, opacities of the cornea, eyelid deformities, cataracts, retinal degeneration, chronic otitis, acute or chronic rhinitis/sinusitis and spinal disease.
• All dogs must be free of heartworms.
• All dogs presented must have been vaccinated within the previous 12 months from rabies, canine distemper, canine adenovirus (Type 2), corona virus, Para influenza, parvovirus and leptospirosis.
And so on. Other restrictions include an agreement to guarantee the health of the dog for two years and his workability for six months or else the seller will either refund the money or offer a replacement dog if a purchased dog fails to meet even one of the criteria.
And those prerequisites are just the beginning. We haven’t even touched on how the military tests potential recruits. Here’s more from that same government solicitation:
• Dogs must have extreme retrieve-and-hunt drive for thrown toys, and dogs must have extreme possessiveness of such toys.
• Dogs shall be neutral and be able to work around all kinds of animal distractions.
• Dogs must be able to work extensively in a muzzle, tasks that include running away while muzzled, engaging a motionless decoy, and remaining aggressive for at least one minute with no help from the handler.
• Dogs must be calm around all types of vehicles to include trucks, ATVs, helicopters, and airplanes.
• Dogs must have no fear of gunfire to include pistol, shot guns, automatic machine guns, grenades, and breaching charges.
Tough customer, that Pentagon. But these dogs have an important job to do, to keep themselves and their troops out of harm’s way, so it’s imperative that the rigorous screening continue. After all, by the time a military working dog is bred or purchased and trained, ready to deploy, the total investment is estimated to range from $40,000 to $50,000.
“These dogs are one of the few items in the military force protection arsenal that increase in the amount they are worth as they age versus depreciating,” said Major Kelley Evans, a veterinarian stationed in Kuwait in 2003.23
Indeed, in the fall of 2010, the Pentagon announced that after six years and $19 billion spent in the attempt to build the ultimate bomb detector technology, dogs were still the most accurate sniffers around. The rate of detection with the Pentagon’s fanciest equipment—drones and aerial detectors—was about 50 percent effective, but when a dog was involved it rose to 80 percent.
“There isn’t a piece of equipment that can do what a dog can do,”24 said Air Force Technical Sergeant R. Duval, kennel master with the 48th Security Forces Squadron.
Becoming an MWD Handler
Of course the dogs are vitally important, but the other half of a team—the human half—is just as important to creating a successful military working dog package.
Especially after the excitement generated from the news of Cairo’s presence on the Osama raid, inevitably there are more civilians considering a career with the military just so they can become a handler and work with these magnificent dogs.
Be warned: The job is not as easy as it looks. For one, becoming a handler is more complex than it first seems. You can’t just enlist and be made a handler. Military working dogs are typically assigned to security units, so first you’ll have to prove your mettle as a military cop for at least two or three years. Handlers are also responsible for every part of a dog’s care, not just the working hours and training.
“Some people perceive that the handler’s job is to hold the dog’s leash and command them to attack a perpetrator,” said Staff Sergeant Benjamin Collins, of the 376th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, who’s partnered with Densy, a Belgian Malinois. “Our job is a lot more involved than that for sure. Being a handler is like being a parent. The dogs need care and attention as much as any child. We have to be tuned in to our dogs in every way—everything from knowing their temperature to their temperament. These dogs are like humans in that they have good days and bad days, too. It’s up to us to know the signals.”25
“Cir is bipolar,” Clifford Hartley said of his partner. “He gets mood swings just like people. One moment he’s happy, then the next he’s angry, but no one else notices except me. I know that’s the time to just leave him alone, and I tell him go back to your house, buddy, it’s time to quit.”26
Another hurdle is that even getting accepted to train to become a handler requires lots of patience, sometimes years. Air Force Senior Airman Mark Bush is teamed up with a Belgian Malinois named Chukky, though he wasn’t a handler when he first signed up with the military. In March 2004, he was deployed to Iraq, where he met a canine handler with the Navy, and he was amazed not only by what the dog could do but also by the relationship between the two and the work ethic they shared. He began to investigate what it would take to become a handler, and after he deployed to another location, he asked the kennel master what it would take to become a handler himself.
“Back then, you had to have the kennel master’s approval to attend K9 training,” said Bush. “Being a handler takes a lot of initiative and work outside of your regular duty day, and he wanted to make sure I knew that canine was hard work.”27
But before he received the kennel master’s blessing, Bush was required to spend eighty hours over a period of several weeks volunteering at the kennel in addition to his regular duties.
“Three or four people wanted to go K9 at the same time as me,” he said. “We started out mopping floors and scrubbing baseboards. The handlers would move the dogs out of their kennels and I’d have to clean up after them; it’s a constant job. It was hard work, and by the end of the week I was the only one who stayed with it. I kept up with it for a few more weeks and then I got to go out to train with the K9 department, which made me really excited about going to school.”
Bush’s experience isn’t unusual. Being a military dog handler is anything but a glamour job, so the kennel master wants to make sure a prospective handler knows the ins and outs of the job before signing on for extensive training. Technical Sergeant LeighAnn Weigold is a handler with the 437th Security Forces Squadron, and like Bush, for more than a year she had to spend her free time cleaning kennels, feeding and caring for the dogs, and following handlers’ orders before she was accepted into the training program.
Another necessary task is serving as a decoy—in other words, to voluntarily allow a dog to attack you and try to rip you to shreds. Of course, decoys wear protective guards and wraps on their bodies to protect them from the dog’s bites, but the first time always brings a certain reluctance. “It’s scary at first,” said Weigold, “and some dogs are more intimidating than others.”28
Joel Townsend actually spent three years volunteering as a decoy and cleaning kennels before he was accepted into the dog handler program, after which he was eventually paired up with A-Taq. And while the job, of course, requires a handler to be an animal lover, he or she needs to be a people person as well, so when it comes to the job, introverts need not apply. “I’ve always been an extroverted person, and that’s exactly what you need in order to work a dog,”29 said Private First Class Justin Kintz, who works alongside a Belgian Malinois named Elco.
He’s also had to adopt a few quirks of his own that might prove to be embarrassing in certain circles, since he discovered that Elco pays more attention to him if he speaks in “a high-pitched, girly voice.”
But he doesn’t mind, and neither do other handlers. In fact, it seems that another requirement for a good handler is just being a bit different. “It’s not just a job for us, it’s a passion,” said Technical Sergeant Len Arsenault, kennel master at Hanscom Air Force Base near Bedford, Massachusetts. “We’re kind of odd people.”30
“We belong to a strange fraternity,” said Hartley. “We’re a different kind of group of people. We have a fun work environment and we know how to goof around and not take things so seriously all the time.”31
* * *
Joseph Villalobos, a contracted dog trainer with Northrop Grumman, agrees. “Working with the military working dogs is an outstanding job,” he said. “Our canine family is tight and the camaraderie is always high.”32
A good dose of passion also comes in handy, since a handler’s job is truly never done. “Training a military working dog is never complete and no day is ever the same,”33 said Air Force Staff Sergeant Travis Hazelton, who worked with a ten-year-old German shepherd named Sinda when he was deployed in Iraq with the 37th Security Forces Squadron.
“You’re never actually done training your dog because there is always more you can do or fine-tune. Military working dogs are like privates, who are brand-new to the Army. They must be taught everything about their jobs, beginning with the most basic principles, because they don’t know anything. Then they need constant training to keep them focused on performing their missions.”
“It’s just like anything else,” said Specialist Jason David, who works with Sergeant Bandit, an English springer spaniel, a hunting dog of medium size with a white belly and brown covering most of its back and head, save for a thin white stripe down its forehead. “If you don’t train, you’ll lose it.”34
When Hartley and Cir worked together, they trained an average of one and a half hours each day. “There are certain requirements we have to meet each month, so the training is constant,” he said. “If we stop training, the dog goes downhill too. He gets lazy if he doesn’t work, almost like he remembers how to do this, but he doesn’t want to. But after a weekend off, they’re all ready to work because they’re bored, since they’ve been sitting back in the kennels for two full days.”35
“It’s a lot of work keeping the dogs groomed and cleaning the kennels,” said Army Specialist Damen Tokarz with the 554th Military Police Company, whose partner is a German shepherd named Cedo. “We clean their runs every day, scrub them from top to bottom and disinfect them once a week, bathe the dogs a minimum of once every two weeks, brush them at least every other day, and feed, water, and give them their medicine. Being a dog handler is a thoroughly enjoyable job, but it’s physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding,” Tokarz said.36
And another part of the downside of being a military dog handler: The paperwork will kill you.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much paperwork is involved with a dog,” said Air Force Staff Sergeant Glenn Gordon, who works alongside Ricky, a German shepherd. “My dog has been in the military for five years. Every single day of this dog’s life, his records have to be updated.”37 After all, when a dog does his job, everything is noted on his permanent record, from weight to training to mood and temperament out in the field, as well as where the dog traveled in the course of a day. After all, someday in the future, something that a dog does—like attack—or finds—like drugs—has to have detailed documentation or else the evidence may be thrown out in court.
“It’s not like my dog found marijuana and now I’m done for the day,” Gordon continued. “I also have to maintain the dog’s training. He’s just like a little kid. If he doesn’t continue to tie his shoes, he’s going to forget.”
Gordon’s colleague Air Force Staff Sergeant Robert Black, whose partner is a German shepherd named Aaron, has some advice for would-be military dog handlers. “If you want to be a dog handler, go to your local kennel and talk to them and get your hands mixed in there to see how it really is,” he said. “You’re not just sitting in an air-conditioned car riding around with a dog. You get to do some pretty cool stuff, but there’s actually a lot that you don’t see. That’s the stuff you need to seek out to make sure this is what you want.”38
Despite the heavy workload, most handlers don’t regret anything about their jobs. And Black has another word of warning: Handling a dog isn’t just a job; it’s a close personal relationship. “You always remember your first dog,” he said.
Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Rogak