Dog teams use training as opportunity to build rapport
CENTRAL TRAINING AREA, OKINAWA, Japan -- Military working dog handlers and their dogs executed explosives and narcotics detection, patrolling and bite work training Aug. 7 in the Central Training Area, Okinawa, Japan.
During the scenarios, the dogs searched for hidden narcotics and explosives along a trail and in a building. The patrol training involved dogs running down an assistant in protective gear, clearing a building and working on directional skills.
Directional skills include commands like straight back, left or right, communicated to a dog by their handler when they are off-leash, according to Cpl. Amber Yager, an Alexandria, Minnesota, native and military working dog handler with 3rd Law Enforcement Battalion, III Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group, III MEF. A dog handler can use a whistle, hand signals and/or verbal commands to communicate with the dog. The more proficient a dog team is at directionals, the farther distance a dog can search while off-leash.
The dog handlers with the battalion do not necessarily participate in regular military police duties. Their day-to-day work is focused on training with their dogs for deployments.
“We’ve had handlers get attached to special operation units and (infantry) forces,” said Lance Cpl. Pete Hernandez, a military working dog handler with 3rd LE Bn. “We’re an asset to them, so we have to always be prepared and keep ourselves adept, as well as our dogs.”
Marines try to partner dogs and dog handlers with similar personalities. Often, one will have more experience than the other.
Military working dog Amber has deployed three times, while her handler has only been in the Marine Corps for two years, according to Hernandez, an El Paso, Texas, native and Amber’s handler. Dog handlers are always learning, whether from watching dogs or sharing experiences among each other.
The dog teams train three times a week, and the handlers setup scenarios for each other to make the training as real as possible for the teams.
“We use real explosives and everything they would encounter (while deployed),” said Lance Cpl. Michael Foster, a military working dog handler with 3rd LE Bn. “We have visuals like (rocket propelled grenades) and AK-47’s throughout the course, so it helps the handler to keep their eyes open and not just focused on the dog.”
Though the teams are training for hostile environments, the dogs enjoy the work. Handlers reward their dog with a toy if they perform the correct actions for a scenario.
“We know we’re looking for explosives, but the dog has no idea (how serious the situation is),” said Foster, an Aurora, Colorado, native. “For them it’s all just a big game, and that’s why you see them so focused and working so hard to find the smell because they really want their toy.”
Running through the scenarios sustains and improves a dog and their handler’s skills, but it also builds a stronger rapport between the two, according to Foster. A dog handler’s day does not end when their dog successfully completes a scenario, but continues into their free time as they develop their relationship.
“Rapport building isn’t just taking these dogs out and instantly start working them,” said Cpl. Sean McKenzie, a military working dog handler with the battalion. “It’s taking them out on walks, hanging out with them in the kennels and having fun with them.”
A dog and their handler may know all the required skills and completed scenarios in the past, but it is up to the dog handler to continue sustaining and improving the team’s job proficiency.
“Just like Marines, if we don’t continue the dogs training, it can easily diminish and they will forget things,” said McKenzie, a Germantown, Maryland, native. “It’s important to keep on training because in the event that a team is needed immediately, the dogs can do what they are tasked to do.”