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Airman 1st Class David Dobrydney, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing
379th Air Expeditionary Wing - 09.17.2009
There's an old saying that states, 'Dog is man's best friend.' That certainly holds true for the members of the military working dog unit of the 379th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron here in Southwest Asia.
Military working dog handlers deploy with a dog from their home station. Like any police duo, this team of two views each other as partners. Tech. Sgt. Chad Eagan, a military working dog handler deployed from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., works with a 3-year old Belgian Tervuren named Suk (pronounced Sook).
Fellow handler Senior Airman Carrie Dowdy, deployed from Tyndall AFB, Fla., works with a 7-year old German Shepherd named Ciro. These handlers described a dog's life in the desert.
Like any person, the dog must be fed and allowed to use the 'restroom' at the start of each day, Eagan said. The handler then grooms the dog, checking for any insect bites it might have received through the night. "It's important to check your dog from nose to tail to make sure it's healthy," Dowdy said.
"After that, it's 'load up' time and ready to go to work," Eagan said.
While normally working in the search pit area under a shady canopy, military working dogs also have special equipment to help keep them comfortable when tasked to work elsewhere. For example, if a dog will be working on hot pavement for an extended period of time, they are provided special booties to wear. There are even 'doggles' for when a dog is working in bright sunlight. "They're just like us," Dowdy said. "They spend all evening out of the sun and when we take them out in the morning, their eyes need time to adjust."
Training never stops for the dogs, even when they are deployed. As detection animals, each dog must remain familiar with the scents it is trained to recognize. "We're constantly training, constantly improving," Eagan said. "Detection is the main reason our dogs are here, so that's what we focus on."
The military working dogs are also trained in patrol tactics, such as scouting for subjects and attack methods. The harsh desert environment, however, does require the dog handlers to take extra precautions during training sessions.
"The heat does put a damper on what we can do," Eagan said, adding that every handler must know first-aid and be ready to administer it. "We always carry IV fluids so that if a dog does succumb to a heat-related injury, we can quickly administer fluids," he said.
For Eagan, getting a 'newcomer' up to speed is the most challenging part of working with military dogs. "You might get a new dog after already having worked with a trained one that knew everything -- like remote control," Eagan said. "You have to start from the beginning to teach a new dog, just like a new Airman coming into the career field."
The bond that develops between a handler and his or her dog is a rewarding part of the job. "The most enjoyable part is being able to deploy with your best friend," Eagan said. "It's rewarding to see your dog progress in its training or to get the 'big find' and discover a cache."
While Eagan and Suk have only been a team for six months, Dowdy and Ciro have been working together for more than a year. "We have an incredible rapport," she said. To this handler, the most enjoyable part of being a dog handler is when her dog has an epiphany – "the moment he realizes he's done something well or learned some-thing new," she said.
While the mission always comes first, Dowdy said playtime is encouraged between the dogs and their handlers to build upon those relationships. Ciro is a 'Kong' dog, meaning he enjoys the Kong™ dog toy when he does well. Other dogs may be 'ball' dogs or 'food' dogs.
Security forces Airmen who want the opportunity to work with dogs must first volunteer for the job. For Dowdy, there was never a doubt. "When I talked with my recruiter, I told her I would do whatever it takes to be a canine handler," she said. Shortly thereafter, she was doing the job she loves.
The importance of caring for a living, breathing piece of 'military equipment' is not lost on Dowdy. "We do the same details [as other security forces Airmen], but we have the additional responsibility of having to care for and train these animals; they're worth so much," Dowdy said, adding that training a military working dog can cost in upwards of $50,000. "The job is very humbling," she said. "Ciro and I are learning something new every day together."
Licking his partner's face and wagging his tail, Ciro would tend to agree.