MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Four military working dogs with the Combat Center Provost Marshal’s received their annual certification in explosives detection at a vacant building here July 29.
Under the watchful eye of Maj. Wesley T. Prater, the Combat Center provost marshal, the dogs searched the building with their respective handlers for nine types of explosives ranging from simple powders to C-4 plastic explosives.
“Today’s exercise was a base certification that we hold with the provost marshal,” said Sgt. Rynne W. Brandt, assistant kennel master. “He certifies the dogs saying that [the dog] knows all of the orders that we train with and also that he’s dependable. That way, if we get called up to handle a situation, we can substantiate that these dogs meet the standards.”
Prater and his Marines carefully planted the explosives around the building in various locations. The locations were meticulously recorded to not only ensure proper retrieval after the exercise, but to verify that the dog had detected a scent in the correct location.
“For them,” said Brandt, “it’s all just a game. They are trained with the ‘box method,’ where we place aid under the box, the dog smells it and is rewarded.”
“From that point on, the dog responds to that odor thinking it’s a reward,” continued Brandt. “It’s just fun for them.”
Handlers also had their dogs search a car positioned outside the building that was set up as a standard vehicle inspection after completing their search of the interior of the building.
The dogs should be able to go through the building and to the car and detect all substances in eight to 15 minutes, said Brandt.
“They all did well today,” said Lance Cpl. Brian M. Douglass, a working dog handler. "Some places slowed them all down, but they didn’t miss any.”
The facility used for the event is also used by PMO Marines for their own training, where they fire paint rounds to record hits and work through various scenarios which are very similar to infantry military operations in urban terrain training.
“We do a lot of our training with [simulated paint] rounds here,” said Douglass. “The spent rounds have a little powder in them, but the dogs know the difference.”
Life at the kennels for the 10 working dogs–three narcotics dogs and seven explosives dogs–is one of constant training, said Brandt. Dogs may come to the kennel young and inexperienced, and it is his job and the job of his fellow Marines to train them.
“We spend a lot of time with the dogs,” said Brandt. “The training day is usually long for us and them because we get here early to take care of them and meet their personal needs as well as go through the training day.”
Narcotics detection dogs and explosives detection dogs are not cross-trained, said Brandt, because each field presents different unique challenges.
“For the narcotics dogs, they are more aggressive when searching for substances,” Brandt said. “However, the explosives dogs must be passive. When they detect something, they are trained to sit, because if they dig around like the narcotics dogs do, there is a possibility of detonation or hidden triggers.”
Military working dogs, just like their handlers, also deploy overseas to combat zones, with one dog currently deployed from the kennel.
Brandt, who returned from Iraq only six months ago, had to pass his dog to another handler because he was needed to remain in Iraq. Brandt now trains with Jack, a veteran and experienced dog at the kennels.
In Iraq, the dogs not only perform their jobs but also project an image to insurgents.
“The Iraqis also have a working dog force with their police, but we don’t train them,” said Brandt. “We select and train our dogs to be very aggressive, and it scares them.”
The handlers, who spend most of the day with their dogs, say they develop a connection with their partners and become an effective team.
“We like to say that everything travels ‘down leash’ here – you’re a team” said Brandt. “You work really closely with your dog and you can read them and they can read you.”
“I didn’t come into the Marine Corps planning to be a [military policeman], and I didn’t even know that the Marine Corps had dogs,” continued Brandt. “But I’ve learned a lot and have an outstanding team of Marines here, and I wouldn’t trade it.”