Fort Riley kennels home to man’s best friend
Rex, a MWD, practices patrol and detection work during a FTX Feb. 20 at Fort Riley. Rex is slated to deploy with his handler, Sgt. Nina Atrero-Handy, 523rd MP Co., 97th MP Bn., in April. Photo by: Julie Fiedler, POST.
Story by: Julie Fiedler
1ST INF. DIV. POST
"There's no other job in the Army like it," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Saucier, 523rd Military Police Detachment Company, 97th Military Police Battalion, about being a dog handler.
Saucier started working with military working dogs, or MWDs, nearly 18 years ago.
"Where else can you go to work and get paid to play with dogs and search for something that nobody else has access to?" Saucier said, referring to the explosives and narcotics that the MWDs work with on a routine basis.
Saucier serves as the kennel master at Fort Riley, where he helps oversee the MWD operation.
Fort Riley is home to 12 MWDs across three specialties, including patrol explosive detector dogs, or PEDDs; patrol narcotics detector dogs, or PNDDs; and specialized search dogs, or SSDs.
Each specialty tends to focus on certain types of missions, Saucier said.
PEDDs are often deployed in combat to detect improvised explosive devices and subsurface bombs. They also can go on missions supporting presidential details.
In addition to doing detection for wellness inspections on post, PNDDs also can be sent to do border patrol work.
SSDs often deploy with special operations units. They do similar detection work as the PEDDs, but can push out further off leash.
The various missions serve as a reminder the MWDs are actually in charge, said Staff Sgt. Sam Finney, 523rd MP Co.
"The dog is the boss. He is actually the leader," Finney said. "We're just the leash holder."
"When they call us out for our secret service missions or bomb threats, they're not calling me … They want that dog. They don't care who's holding the leash. To keep us in that mind frame, we always say that the dog is one rank higher than us … One rank higher than what the handler is – that's what we try to instill."
Still, handlers need to give the impression they are the Alpha.
"Dogs are very smart. They can size us up before we touch them," Finney said. "We always have to give the dog at least the (perception) that the human is always the Alpha."
In order to ensure a working relationship of mutual respect, the leadership does its best to match the personalities of the handlers with the dogs.
"The goal when they come in (is) to try to match them up with a dog that's kind of the same personality," Finney said.
When asked what their dogs are like, the handlers' faces light up.
"He's a handful!"
"He's like a middle-aged man."
"He can be very spontaneous."
The relationship is a close one, but complicated.
"It's a full-time job," said Pvt. Austin Bertrand, dog handler, 523rd MP Co. "(On) weekends, I miss (Max). I go in. I talk to him. I hang out with him. It's like you have to build that bond because he could save your life."
"It's rough," Finney said. "We all love dogs ... (But) when it comes time to go, we have to separate … It's a Humvee. It's an M16. It's a piece of equipment."
"Dogs may be a piece of equipment, but they require a lot of maintenance," said Capt. Meghan Starr, company commander, 523rd MP Co.
Prior to arriving at Fort Riley, the MWDs go through basic training just like Soldiers. Not all of them make it, Finney said.
When the dogs finish basic training – anywhere from three to five months at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas – they are usually 1 1/2 to 2 years old. They know the basics, but it's up to the individual units to provide more in-depth training.
For example, dogs are trained at Lackland using bite sleeves, but their patrol work may require they bite other parts of the body.
"When we want them to bite a bad guy, (the dog is) going to be looking for an arm. Well, what if that bad guy is running and they just never can catch the arm? What we found is that the dog will just keep running with the bad guy because he can't get his arm. We don't want that," Finney said.
While in garrison, each dog is mandated to get four hours of detection training and four hours of patrol training each week.
"It seems like a small number for a week, but when each problem takes between 20 to 40 minutes, you've got to run a lot of problems to get those hours," Finney said. "It tends to stretch you out pretty good."
The detection training involves working with explosives and narcotics. For that reason, security around the kennel is extremely tight, and accountability for the materials is strict.
The patrol training involves bite work, requiring Soldiers to take turns serving as decoys for the dogs and handlers to practice on.
"We all have to be very good at being decoys," Finney said. "You're actually training the dog. It's not the guy that's holding the leash. (The decoy) has to be very, very good at what he does because he's reading what that dog is doing."
The decoys transition the dogs off of the bite sleeves and onto a bite suit, a thick full-body protective suit worn by the decoys. The bite suit helps train the dogs to bite other parts of the body in addition to the arms.
Another element of bite training involves teaching the dogs to bite properly – to bite and hold a suspect.
"(The dogs are) supposed to bite and restrain that individual, and we get up there to catch them. If they bite them (repeatedly), that's attacking," Finney said.
So decoys have to make it difficult for the dog if they ever let go.
"We'll run even harder to make him hold on because he knows if he lets go, he won't get it again," Finney said.
"It's very difficult to run in (the bite suit), and you can work up a big sweat really fast," Finney added.
Handlers also use tools and toys during training to help keep the dogs engaged.
"They live for the chase. When you come alive, dogs chase," Finney said.
Bamboo sticks, called agitation sticks, make noise to draw the dogs' attention. Likewise various toys, like rubber Kongs, keep the dogs interested.
"It's got to be fun for (Rex)," said Sgt. Nina Atrero-Handy, dog handler, 523rd MP Co. "So I have to entice him and get him back into the mood just to make sure he's working."
Atrero-Handy's dog loves the Kong, she said.
"It looks so stupid to us, but they love it. They love this thing; it drives them crazy," Finney said of the Kong.
The MWD facility houses the dog kennels, a kitchen area for feeding, a vet area for outpatient treatment, as well as a quarantine area. The standards are strict for each area.
"We use a lot of bleach here," Finney said, "A lot of bleach."
Together with the other noncommissioned officers, Saucier and Finney have brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to Fort Riley.
"We've got a lot of experience here, Starr said.
"We just went through an inspection in October from (Forces Command), and they said we were one of the top two kennels in all of FORSCOM, so that experience really paid off."