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Monday, October 4, 2010

Every dog has its day

DIYALA, Iraq – Sgt. First Class Rudder and Staff Sgt. Rochan Turner were conducting a routine route clearance mission on a sweltering summer afternoon in Afghanistan when Sgt. First Class Rudder indicated a potential hazard ahead in the convoy’s path. Upon closer inspection, Sgt. First Class Rudder’s initial inclination proved correct as two mortars rigged to an improvised explosive device were unearthed from the roadway, preventing approximately 20 vehicles from suffering catastrophic damage.

The most impressive aspect of the situation was the fact that Sgt. First Class Rudder was a Labrador retriever trained as a Specialized Search Dog, operating off of his leash up to 100 meters away from his handler, Staff Sgt. Rochan Turner. This dynamic duo has been working together for about four and a half years, placing them in countless situations similar to that in Afghanistan.

Staff Sergeant Rochan Turner, a Houston, Texas native, is the kennel master attached to the Headquarters and Headquarters Operations Company, 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq. Staff Sergeant Turner manages K9 teams at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, FOB Edge and Contingency Operating Base Cobra, ensuring each team has the tools and training necessary to accomplish their missions. He also acts as the advisor to the 2nd Stryker Advise and Assist Brigade, 25th Infantry Division Provost Marshal in utilizing K9 teams as an asset.

Warriors from the 2SAAB, 25th ID assisted dog handlers and trainers in conducting coalition training with Iraqi Police (IP) K9 teams July 20, in an attempt to train IPs on the latest U.S. Army Military Police (MP) tactics based around working dogs. This training covered basic commands and what they do, recognizing changes in the dog’s behavior and what those changes may indicate.

After the training, Lt. Col. John Shattuck, the Diyala provincial police team chief from the Stability Transition Team, 2SAAB, 25th ID, and Capt. Maurice Mckinney, the Provost Marshal for 2SAAB, 25th ID, discussed ways the brigade could support IP forces and assist in improving their overall readiness to assume complete control of all missions following the American transition to contingency operations within the region.

“We talked about near-future goals and long-term projects the brigade could assist the IPs with,” said Capt. Mckinney. “Capt. Moufaq, the canine manager for the Diyala Provincial Police Headquarters, mentioned needing a canine training area with obstacles, and the construction of that kind of training pen is something we would assist with.”

Laying this foundation and strengthening familiarization in core training is vital in order to realize the potential the working dog program has, as IPs have just recently embraced the idea of utilizing canines for counter-insurgency purposes.

“Iraqi Police forces have only been using K9 teams for a few years, so it’s important we train them right,” said Staff Sgt. Turner.

Before they have the opportunity to assist in teaching IP K9 teams, U.S. Army canines must complete “basic training” at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, introducing them to odors and basic commands. Handlers learn how to observe and properly react to changes in the dog’s behavior as well as techniques for instilling obedience.

Once training is completed, K9 teams receive specific orders, sending them to units in-theater to support that unit’s mission. A typical deployment for a K9 team ranges from six to 12 months.

“We train for war every day,” said Staff Sgt. Turner. “We can get the call at any time and then we move out with those orders.” (GOOD FOR PULLED QUOTE IN LAYOUT)

In order to effectively augment each unit during a deployment, certain dogs have extended skill sets. Specialized Search Dogs can travel up to 150 meters off the leash. Handlers use voice commands, and hand and arms signals to communicate with the dogs. Patrol Explosive Dogs specialize in sniffing out a variety of materials used in the construction of explosive devices.

When a K9 team is not deployed, they are still training. There are countless certifications that handlers and their dogs can obtain, in addition to the mandatory annual certifications that require handlers to update their dog’s odor recognition set.

The canines are hydrated often and fed food rich in protein in order to maintain the energy and acute awareness necessary to effectively carry out their missions. Handlers often stockpile food prior to deployments, and can order more as their supplies dwindle.

Interestingly enough, Staff Sgt. Turner said a portion of the Iraqi population doesn’t like dogs and views them as dirty animals, though it depends largely upon the region and the prominence of Western influence. All members of the Iraqi Police force that are trained to work with canines, however, have a deep appreciation for their animals. U.S. Army dog handlers often stress the importance of developing a strong bond with the dogs.

“We teach the IPs that it’s important to love the dog, to take care of it. The biggest reward for the dog is love,” Staff Sgt. Turner said. “Everything the dog does is done to please the handler.”

All work and no play makes for anxious, exhausted hounds. Between missions and training exercises, handlers understand the importance of letting their dogs off the leash for some quality playtime.

“We give them breaks,” said Staff Sgt. Turner. “Before we train, we let them run around and play and just be dogs.”

Staff Sergeant Turner said the most rewarding part of his job is the constant companionship found in his loyal buddy, Rudder, a feeling shared by many dog handlers.

“I love working with him,” Staff Sgt. Turner beamed. “He’s a good boy, a hard worker and he doesn’t talk back.”

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