FORT LEONARD WOOD


Beyond whiffs and sniffs -- military working dog mission more complex than mere smells

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Story by Terrance Bell on 12/08/2016
FORT LEE, Va. (Dec. 8, 2016) -- The warehouse is fairly large, roughly the size of a football field. He's oblivious to the lighting, the layout or the various supplies and goods stacked on the shelves. He only glances at the occasional stranger walking about the confines.

Undoubtedly, he's on a mission probing, panting, slobbering and whiffing his way down each aisle at her direction to find the "prize."

"He" is Batman, a cape-less, 2-year-old black-and-brown German shepherd who along with Spc. Brittany Bishop is one of several dog handler teams assigned to Fort Lee's 544th Military Police Detachment (Military Working Dog).

Likely one of the installation's smallest units with only eight Soldiers, the 544th has a diverse, layered and far-reaching mission, said Sgt. 1st Class William C. Morton, kennel master and noncommissioned officer in charge.

"We are highly deployable, we support the garrison's law enforcement mission and the U.S. Secret Service," he explained from his unit's complex located off of A Avenue. "This is not a typical garrison unit."

The unit's mission priority is contingency operations, added Morton. Two 544th handler-canine teams are currently assigned to other locations. Deployments average between two and four a year, he said.

Additionally, there are "anywhere between 10 and 15" Secret Service assignments annually, said Morton.

K-9 teams carry out either narcotics or explosives detection missions. Teams also perform patrol duties to supplement law enforcement activities. The garrison mission requires all three capabilities. To fulfill its duties, the teams undertake a rigorous schedule of training and utilization, said Morton.

"These guys train day-in and day-out each week," said the Soldier, noting canines must constantly train to prevent falloffs in proficiency. "They are required to maintain at least four hours of patrol training (obedience and aggression) per week and four hours of detection training per week whether its explosives or narcotics."

Certified teams require an additional "96 utilization hours whether it's Secret Service, health and welfare, law enforcement or force protection missions each month," added Morton.

Bishop and Batman were certified earlier this year. The warehouse drill to find narcotics training aids was routine but critical because Bishop said she is not as proficient with him as she would like to be.

"We just got him in July," said the 24-year-old who joined the Army two years ago. "He's really young (2 years old) so he still has a lot of issues because he's still pretty much a puppy."

In the warehouse, Batman was generally obedient and spot-on in finding the narcotics training aids, said Bishop, but his ability to listen is spotty when he's off-leash in certain situations. That has been a source of frustration, but she has learned patience is key and even small increments of improvement should be celebrated whether the team was or was not successful in finding the narcotics "prizes."

"We're challenged with something different every day," said the Raleigh, N.C., native. "As long as we learn from it, I believe we've successfully tackled that detection problem."

The goal is to develop a stronger bond with the animal, said Bishop.

"The better the relationship, the better the team," she said.

On top of the training, the dogs demand a regimen of care, said Morton.

"The dogs are a 24-hour-a-day duty," said the Soldier who has been a handler 13 of his 17 years of service. "At the end of the day, we don't just pack up and go home," he said. "We have set hours in which someone has to come in and check on the dogs, feed them and make sure they are good to go."

The cost of care and training makes dogs valuable assets, said Morton.

"You're looking at between $10,000 and $20,000 a dog," he said.

Of course, the dogs are not the only ones who require training in an MWD unit. Its Soldiers must check off a long list of individual skill and common training requirements. That makes the 544th an element in constant motion; one in which an absentee can disrupt operations, said Morton.

"Yeah, we don't have a lot of Soldiers or dogs here, but when people have to go on leave, you've just shrunk your pool even more" in the conduct of fulfilling mission requirements, he said.

Other unit challenges include matching dogs with handlers (when feasible) and personnel changes. Generally, similar handler-dog dispositions make for better teams, said Morton. Handlers new to the unit require a minimum of 30 days to become effective with dogs, which do not relocate with handlers. This is irrespective of the handler's and dog's skill or experience because team cohesion is critical to proficiency.

"If a team has been together two or three years," said Morton, "you're going to see a different bond and relationship, and you'll push for that team to be deployed versus a team put together within 30-90 days. They're still green, fresh, still learning each other; not necessarily something I would want to put out front if I don't have to."

Dogs, said Morton, represent a variable that makes the MWD mission unique. They cannot be counseled like Soldiers to improve their performance, therefore much consideration has to be given to the dog's temperament and rate and way of learning.

"It just takes repetition and training; consistent training,"said Morton. "If we're not putting in that time, then we're not going to get what we need to get out of that dog."

The dog handler designation has long been an additional skill identifier for the military police occupational specialty (31B). Two years ago, dog handler was established as an MOS 31K. The law enforcement portion of the training is held at the MP school located at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., but canine-specific instruction takes place at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

K-9 training was originally established under the Quartermaster Corps during World War II. The MP Corps became responsible for the training in 1951.


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