Dogs have been serving in wars for hundreds of years, but were formally trained for service in the U.S. Military in WWII. Today, hundreds of dogs are actively being trained and deployed on missions alongside our soldiers. Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas operates one of the Army’s canine training facilities, where dogs get advanced training for service in law enforcement or in a military combat zone. We thought we’d look at what it takes for a good dog to serve as a Military Working Dog (MWD).
The Army trains three specific breeds for service, German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds and Belgium Malinois. “We use these specific breeds because they are versatile,” said Fort Bliss Kennel Master, SFC James Allred. “These breeds are very obedient and good at detection, and the Army needs effective dual purpose dogs trained in both patrol and detection. These breeds are your best suited dogs.” SFC Allred explained that even though breeds like Bloodhounds are known for their superior scent detection, they don’t have the energy and stamina for the mission. The Shepherds and Malinois have great endurance and do better with climate change and stressful situations.
Once a dog is carefully selected for service, they attend Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where they are trained in obedience, patrolling and detection. Once they pass Basic Training, the dogs are sent to their assigned duty station for Advanced Training.
“Here, the dogs are conditioned to for what they are going to see downrange in a combat zone,” said SFC Allred. The training becomes specific to the actual mission for which the Military Working Dog will be deployed. An average of nine dogs are trained each year at Fort Bliss.
For this training, one MWD and one handler are paired up as a team and become inseparable. They train for 90 days to meet the Army’s certification standards.
“One of the great things about our training is, we never take the dog out of the dog. We train them to do what they want to do,” SFC Allred explained. “We want each dog to maintain his individuality. Handlers have to understand the dog. We manipulate the behavior of the dog. For detection, to get a dog to respond, we use toys as a training incentive. The dog will work because if he finds what he is supposed to find, he’ll get rewarded. Then the dog gets what he wants.”
At the end of training, the dog/handler teams are evaluated for an entire week. They are subjected to five days of intense training exercises to ensure the dog is ready for law enforcement or deployment operations. To pass validation, both the handler and dog must function efficiently as a team.
Upon successful completion of certification the MWD is ready to deploy. The team will continue to train and conduct operations and spend the majority of their time training and operating together in the field.
A Military Working Dog may be on duty for up to 8 to 9 hours per day, but that’s not all spent patrolling or detecting. Part of every workday includes obedience training, grooming time, exercise time, and personal time.
Military Working Dogs perform difficult and dangerous duties, but like all dogs, they love to work and love to please. The handlers give the dogs plenty of attention, plenty of play time, and they’re never alone.
If the dog is ever hurt or sick, the handler comes in from the field with him. “It’s just like if they were our kids,” SFC Allred said. “The handler stays with the dog no matter what.”
Military Working Dogs can work until they reach age 13, or may retire sooner if they’re no longer healthy enough to work. Because the dogs work so many years, they generally stay at the same installation their entire career, and handlers rotate. With each new handler, the pair goes through training together In order to build the team cohesion and train for certification.
When it is time for an MWD to retire, 90% of the time, they are adopted by one of the trainers who served with them. The dog/handler bond is very strong, and the handlers keep up with the dogs long after they’ve gone on to other missions or completed their service.
“I still keep up with the dogs I initially worked with,” said SFC Allred. “If they ever come up for adoption, I’d take them.”
Being a dog handler must be the most enviable job in the Army. “I love it,” said SFC Allred. “I get paid to train and work with dogs on a daily basis.”
To see these Army Strong dogs in training at Fort Bliss, watch this Snouts in Your Town video: Military Dogs.