Soldiers, dogs put through paces at FTX
Pfc. Sean Davis, 523rd MP Co., 97th MP Bn., leads Chico, MWD, on patrol during a FTX Feb. 20 at Fort Riley with support from Soldiers with the 300th MP Co., 97th MP Bn. Davis was on the lookout for points of interest along the roadways to have Chico investigate further for explosives. Photo by: Julie Fiedler, POST.
Story by: Julie Fiedler
1ST INF. DIV. POST
As the sound of gunfire broke out, Pvt. Austin Bertrand ran for cover, pulled his weapon and started soothing Max to calm him down amid the confusion.
Max is a military working dog, or MWD, and Bertrand is a dog handler with the 523rd Military Police Detachment Company, 97th Military Police Battalion.
The gunfire was part of a daylong field training exercise for Bertrand and two other dog handlers with the 523rd MP Co., which is scheduled to deploy later this year.
Having gone through rigorous training and certification with their MWDs, the handlers were put through their paces as extra practice and exposure to what they are likely to encounter downrange, said Capt. Meghan Starr, 523rd MP Co. commander.
"We're going to approach this like this is real world right now," Staff Sgt. Sam Finney, 523rd MP Co., told Bertrand before he stepped off with Max during the exercise. "Whatever you see that's suspicious to you, we need you to react … We're here to see what you know and what you don't know … You can't stop and ask questions now … Have fun."
During the exercise, Soldiers had to react to fire – taking cover, while keeping their dogs calm – as well as guide the MWDs as they sniffed out explosives. A village area also was set up where the dogs and handlers had to search buildings and react to aggressors.
"This is going to be my first dog deployment, so this is a whole new experience for me," said Sgt. Nina Atrero-Handy, before stepping off with her MWD Rex. "Right now, I'm making sure this team comes back alive."
"I'm pretty confident in our team," Bertrand said.
All of the handlers spoke this way about the team.
"(Max) works for me. I work for him," Bertrand explained.
Although there is a team aspect, once deployed, the Soldiers will be on their own.
"All canine deployments are individual," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Saucier, kennel master, 523rd MP Co. "When they're downrange, they'll be alone. There'll be no one else there that knows their dog."
In addition to working as Soldiers, handlers have to look out for the welfare of their dogs.
"I need to make sure he's all right, and he's not hurting," Atrero-Handy said. "He can't come up to me and be like, 'Hey, I'm tired' or 'I need water' or 'I don't want to do this anymore.' It's up to me to figure him out. I've got to know his personality. Any changes – something's wrong."
"Having a dog is a larger responsibility, but having a dog that actually works for you – he's like equipment. You've got to make sure he's 100 percent before you can be up to par on what you've got to do. I have to look out for his welfare, as well as mine, but he comes first," Bertrand said.
The relationship between handler and MWD is complicated. Despite the team closeness, that notion of the MWDs as equipment is always present.
"We have to remember though that they're (working) dogs, if need be, we have to release that dog to draw fire to save lives," Finney said. "Even though we know that that dog might get killed. It's our duty to let that dog go … It's a fine line you have to walk there … So, you've got to kind of detach from it, and at the same time, be very attached."
Still, the relationship can be incredibly rewarding.
"Soldiers that are deployed talk about how much better the deployment's been than the ones when they were just with regular Soldiers because they've got their dog there. They've got their friend from back home," Starr said.
Because the deployments are done as individuals, handlers are often attached to units unfamiliar with MWDs. Handlers must be prepared to brief commanders and fellow Soldiers on what to expect.
"You brief (receiving units) on the dog's capabilities, how it acts, what you're going to do if there is fire, what you're going to do if your dog has a response … Really just go over anything and everything and answer questions they have," said Pfc. Sean Davis, who handles Chico.
"We try to rehearse that here before they get downrange, so that it's not the only time that they've ever done that," Saucier said.
Given a specific mission, handlers often have to adjust plans and come up with alternate solutions to work within the MWD's abilities, while still meeting the unit's needs.
"They'll have to think on their feet and make split-second decisions. What they do affects the lives of all these other troops behind them," said Saucier, who was one of the first canine handlers to deploy to Iraq in 2003.
Their actions also will affect the lives of their MWDs.
Handlers are trained in veterinary first aid and must always have an evacuation plan in place for their dogs.
"Everything from treating hot weather injuries, cold weather injuries, (administering) IVs, (treating) chest wounds, gun shots, broken legs, about anything that can happen medically with a dog, we train on that," Saucier said. "They don't usually travel with a vet or vet tech … That's why the dog team always makes sure there's an evac route either by vehicle or by air, specifically for the dog, because many times, the dogs take rounds where the troops do not."
Handlers also need to have a plan in place should something happen to them.
"In case I go down in real life, then I have (a Soldier) with me … I gave him Beggin' Strips just so he can lure (Rex) in, in case they need to get him," Atrero-Handy said.
Treats, toys, crates, bowls, dog food, water – all of these are additional supplies that handlers must have available while traveling.
"(Soldiers) travel with all of their own equipment, all of the dog's equipment and the dog crate and the dog and the dog food," Saucier said. "We fly with all of our stuff in hand because, as soon as you hit the ground, you have to be ready for work right then."
"It's totally different," Davis said of the special considerations canine handlers must have when they deploy.
"The main thing is, you've just got to learn a lot," Davis said. "(I want to) take in as much as I can."
Soldiers with the 300th Military Police Company, 97th Military Police Battalion, took part in the training as well.