The U.S. Military Risks Forgetting Its Hard-Earned K-9 Skills

Bomb-sniffing dogs have an uncertain future

The U.S. Military Risks Forgetting Its Hard-Earned K-9 Skills The U.S. Military Risks Forgetting Its Hard-Earned K-9 Skills
On Dec. 4, Spc. Andrew Brown and the bomb-sniffing dog Rocky of the 226th Military Police Detachment searched a compound in Helmand province, Afghanistan. An... The U.S. Military Risks Forgetting Its Hard-Earned K-9 Skills

On Dec. 4, Spc. Andrew Brown and the bomb-sniffing dog Rocky of the 226th Military Police Detachment searched a compound in Helmand province, Afghanistan. An explosive device detonated, spraying out deadly shrapnel.

Brown and Rocky — who had worked together for two years and deployed in October — sustained injuries, luckily not life-threatening.

The Army medevaced the pair for treatment in Germany. On Dec. 11, 22-year-old Brown arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. for further treatment while Rocky remained in Germany for surgery, awaiting transport to rejoin Brown stateside.

A photograph of a Purple Heart placed on Rocky’s muzzle briefly went viral. Despite media reports that Rocky received a Purple Heart of his own, the military does not officially confer medals upon its working dogs.

“The Purple Heart in the picture was placed on Rocky’s collar as a sign of respect and solidarity,” a representative of the 89th Military Police Battalion told War Is Boring.

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But Rocky’s story is more than just a heartwarming tale. He is the product of a decade-old U.S. military program to train and deploy canine teams capable of discovering improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Often sophisticated, these homemade bombs were the major source of coalition causalities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The attacks began soon after the invasion of Iraq. Forty to 60 percent of insurgent attacks began with the detonation of an IED, some continuing into a gun battle often involving secondary devices. Between 2004 and 2009, IEDs claimed 2,750 coalition soldiers’ lives, and wounded more than 20,600 more.

During this period, the Pentagon scrambled to support its dismounted patrols with bomb-detecting dogs. Up to 1,200 military working dogs put their lives on the line to protect U.S. forces overseas during the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East.

But as the main U.S. missions wrapped up in Iraq and Afghanistan — and public support moved away from “boots on the ground” wars –there is a danger that a lack of funding and interest from the military brass will put an end to the critical programs that put paws on the ground.

It happened before.

Before the last decade’s wars, the last time American dogs served in combat were as scouts in the Vietnam War. The Pentagon canned the extremely effective scout dog program after 1975, and the role of military working dogs shrank back to traditional base security roles such as guarding, patrolling and explosives detection. The skills and techniques learned in the jungle wasted away.

Will the lessons of the Middle East go the same way?

MWD Rocky with a Purple Heart pinned to his muzzle. 89th MP Brigade photo
Rocky with a Purple Heart pinned to his muzzle. Army photo

Sniffing for IEDs

The 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, is responsible for training most of America’s military working dogs.

The Air Force started training its own bomb-detecting dogs in 1971. Prior to the counter-IED mandate, almost all were Patrol Explosives Detector Dogs, or PEDDs. These bite-trained canines could not only sniff out explosives in vehicles, but even hunt down intruders on a base.

There are single-use Explosive Detector Dogs (EDDs) and Mine Detector Dogs (MEDDs) too — which do not receive training in bite techniques. This allows for a broader range of less formidable breeds than the German Shepherds and Belgian Malinoises that make up the dual-use roles.

The Air Force prefers dual-use dogs, because should a dog lose its ability to sniff explosives, it can still conduct patrols. When single-use dogs can no longer meet the high standards required for detection, they must retire.

Dual-use PEDDs were the first dogs to go out on patrol with combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Rebecca Frankel’s excellent War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love, the U.S. Marine Corps was the first branch of the military to throw Lackland’s canines at the IED problem.

In 2004, under orders from Gen. James Mattis, the Marine Corps sent six detector teams and about 25 dogs to Iraq. Although these dogs had training, they had no real experience in hunting for the IEDs lying buried in Iraq’s dusty roadsides, culverts and potholes.

Masked with dirt and rubble, left for days or weeks, these IEDs could be detonated by a cell phone call from a distant observer or by pressure plates waiting for a misplaced footstep.

PEDDs typically operate on-leash, which brought their handlers into the IED’s lethal blast radius of around 50 yards. The military needed a greater off-leash capability to better protect troops, so they turned to Britain and Israel for help.

The Israeli Defense Forces and British Army have extensive experience with dogs in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. In fact, the term IED originated within the British Army to describe the cheap but technically sophisticated fertilizer-boosted Semtex devices planted by the Provisional IRA in the 1970s.

The U.S. military’s off-leash Specialized Search Dogs (SSDs) entered service in 2002 after the U.S. Army Engineer Regiment at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, sent six of its engineers to train at the British Defense Animal Center. The British Army’s Arms and Explosives Search Dogs have an excellent reputation earned during their decades of service in Northern Ireland.

In 2004, the engineers took their dogs to Iraq. Their performance generated further interest in the program, and 21 new SSD teams trained at Fort Leonard Wood in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps worked with the Israelis, experimenting in controlling their off-leash dogs through radio connections. The two off-leash programs merged into the SSD training program and relocated to the joint training center at Lackland after 2005. The center even brought in former British Defense Animal Center instructor Paul Bunker to help teach the course.

SSDs are single-purpose dogs. During a 93-day program at Lackland and Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, SSDs learn how to conduct searches while their handlers observe from around 200 yards away. This takes the handler out of harm’s way, and allows the dog to operate more quickly — up to 10 times as quickly, according to Bunker.

EDDs, PEDDs and SSDs must all pass the military’s explosive detection dog test with 95 percent detection rate, with fewer than 10 percent false positives. They maintain this proficiency with at least four hours of explosive detection training each week. The dogs can find mortar shells, plastic explosives and detonation cords among the detritus common to Middle Eastern urban battlefields.

“The capability they [military working dogs] bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine,” ex-CIA chief David Petraeus was quoted in The Commander’s Guide to Military Working Dogs. “By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory. Our Army would be remiss if we failed to invest more in this incredibly valuable resource.”

But despite consistently outperforming every technological solution designed to replace them, the Pentagon invested billions of dollars to augment the dogs’ work and, if possible, replace them.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Joseph Nunez and Viky in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 18, 2013. USMC photo
A Marine and his working dog in Helmand province, Afghanistan in July 2013. Marine Corps photo

Dog versus machine

Between 2004 and 2010, the Pentagon poured $17 billion into the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, a.k.a. JIEDDO. The idea behind the agency was to develop sophisticated — and highly secretive — electronic systems and training programs to detect and disable IEDs.

That amount of money could have funded a whole army of dogs, but the military’s mutts were simply the sharp end of the counter-IED spear. Dogs require training, which costs a lot of money — around $10,000 a head — and they need frequent rest. On the other hand, a machine can operate around the clock with no distractions.

But there is nothing in the military’s arsenal that can beat the canine’s nose.

“Dogs are the best detectors,” JIEDDO chief Lt. Gen. Michael Oates said at a news conference in 2010. Oates had announced that the military was sending “hundreds of surveillance aircraft, bomb-detection robots, a battalion-size cadre of analysts and advanced data-mining software” to Afghanistan, but he also sang the praises of the dogs already operating in the field.

“Since 2004 both in Iraq and Afghanistan the detection rate has hung stubbornly at around 50 percent,” Oates said. The addition of dogs to U.S. and Afghan patrols, however, increased that detection rate to 80 percent. “That combo presents the best detection system we currently have.”

JIEDDO’s job was more supplementary. The organization provided troops with sensor packages for when dogs were tired or frightened to work. Handheld detectors allowed retreating troops to check the safety of their egress, jamming devices gave them a better chance at blocking remotely-triggered bombs, and better training boosted soldiers’ perception before deployment.

But insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan found ways to counter JIEDDO’s hardware. By 2010, insurgents were using less metal in their bombs — to stunt the effectiveness of metal detectors, the primary handheld sensor available to troops on the ground.

However, the supremacy of dogs just can’t be beaten. A dog’s nose is a thousand times more sensitive than yours or mine, and at least as effective as Fido — FLIR Systems’ military-funded bomb sensor and possibly the next best thing to man’s best friend. “I don’t think we’ll ever beat a dog, because our device doesn’t have a brain,” FLIR sales director Aimee Rose told Smithsonian magazine in 2013.

In any form of detection, whether in a laboratory or in the field, methodology is as important as the hardware. For a dog, tracking a scent is second nature, and its that innate odor-hunting behavior that saves lives. “What we do is more complementary to dogs,” Rose added.

In airports, roadblocks and home searches, a trained dog’s snout can detect as little as a picogram of a compound in the air. That’s a trillionth of a gram — and some tests suggest an even greater sensitivity than that. This powerful nose has allowed individual dogs to save hundreds of civilians and deployed troops in searches for roadside bombs and car bombs.

The problem — there just wasn’t enough dogs to go around.

Cpl. Ryan Stroad with directs Knight, an IDD, at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, March 19, 2013. USMC photo
A Marine directs Knight, an IDD, at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan in March 2013. Marine Corps photo

Bomb-detection gap

In 2007, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory identified a major bottleneck in America’s ability to stem the loss of lives to IED attacks. The Marines lacked available dog teams with the specific off-leash training needed to perform in the field.

To be sure, the military was training 40 percent more dogs than it had before 9/11. But with hundreds of dogs operating abroad for the more than 150,000 troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, there were simply far too few.

It didn’t help that the U.S. military was playing catch up. The Pentagon didn’t have dogs trained for hunting bombs before 9/11. Commanders in the field barely understood how to best deploy K-9 teams, which often left the earliest dog teams struggling to find the best way to deploy their mutts.

Rather than expand Lackland’s ability to breed and supply dogs, the Marine Corps and Army looked to civilian contractors for dogs and training. The Marines’ IED Detector Dog — or IDD — and the U.S. Army’s Tactical Explosives Detector Dog — or TEDD — programs funded the transformation of soldiers into dog handlers through short nine-week training programs.

The Marines began their program with Labrador Retreivers in 2007, doubling the program’s output in 2010. K2 Solutions provided the first five weeks of training for IDD dog teams. The next four weeks of training took place at Enhanced Mohave Viper for large-scale pre-deployment exercises. In 2011, one IDD lost his life during a lane-clearing exercise.

Army TEDDs and their handlers underwent the same 14-day proficiency training as permanent military dog handlers at the Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 course held at Yuma Proving Ground. The course and final test at Yuma gave handlers the invaluable chance to learn from instructors with experience “outside the wire.”

But a dog is only as good as its handler. The downside to the IDD and TEDD programs? Unit commanders picked potential handlers based on who volunteered for job. Without a strong background with dog handling and a particular aptitude, IDD and TEDD handlers suffered a major handicap. They did not have the same extensive training and experience as military police handlers, who make up the majority of the military’s dog handlers.

This potentially left handlers with a lack of confidence and familiarity. The Marines, in particular, seemed to lump dogs and volunteers together in the hope that something would click. The result was more dogs in the field, but many of these were second-tier dog teams.

This is the major lesson of military working dogs after Vietnam. When the military downsized its ability to maintain institutional memory and experience, it ended up shorthanded when it needed that capability later on.

MWD Andy "on scent" in Rusafa, Iraq. U.S. Army photo
Andy the dog ‘on scent’ in Rusafa, Iraq. U.S. Army photo

Hunting down IED makers … with their scent

The fight against IEDs wasn’t just reactive. From 2011, JIEDDO and the Joint Warfighting Center launched the “Attack the Network” campaign to promote an offensive on the people, money and communications that kept the insurgencies going. Dogs played a role here too with the 2010 revival of the Vietnam-era specialty of combat tracking canines.

Tracking is traditionally associated with police bloodhounds that search for fugitives on the run. The combat tracker dogs sent to Vietnam found inspiration in similar teams deployed to British counter-insurgency operations in Kenya and Malaya. Like the modern SSD teams, the first handlers sent to Vietnam initially trained with the British Army Jungle Warfare School.

In Iraq, combat trackers hunted for booby-trappers and IED makers that supplied the insurgency with the tools to kill and maim American troops. Every moment wasted in getting these dogs to the source of a scent is a handicap for their ability to trace the minute particles of skin, hair and sweat left behind by their quarry. The dog sniffs out the scent in the air or along the ground while their handler checks for footprints, scuffs or blood trails.

The canines “can smell skin cells, bacteria and fear-scent odors a couple days after a person has been in an area, and he can track for four or five miles at a time,” Spc. David Hydro of the 500th Military Police Detachment said in a 2009 Army news story.

The Marines first became serious about combat tracking in August 2007 through its 15-day “Combat Hunter” course under the instruction of law enforcement and hunting professionals. The goal was to turn the tables on the insurgents who had been actively hunting U.S. troops.

But if ever there was an example of a military service forgetting the lessons of wars past, it is the Marine Corps’ belated recognition of its need for combat tracker dogs. By the time the Combat Hunter course began, the situation in Iraq had deteriorated into civil war — and nearly 4,000 U.S. troops had died.

The first combat tracker dogs didn’t enter service until 2009 with the Army. Contractors trained the first tracking dog teams before Lackland took over in 2010. Like the TEDD and IDD, the Army and Marine Combat Tracking Dog handlers are volunteers who undergo a nine-week training course. They are infantrymen first, dog-handlers second.

Even in 2010, the joint training facility was only training around 10 such dogs per year. As a result, IED bomb-makers and insurgents whose scent might have been otherwise caught by the canine’s nose slipped away to fight another day. Since 2012, the signs have not been good for the future of military working dogs “outside the wire.”

The spirit of inter-service cooperation that existed in the early years of the program has frayed. The Air Force pulled out of the Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 — or ISAK — course at Yuma Proving Ground in 2012 to create its own pre-deployment capability. The ISAK course itself seemed to have been lucky to secure three more years of funding that same year — and now that funding is up.

That same year, the Air Force Military Working Dog program — which operates Lackland’s dog-training program — was investigating how it could save the service money. In addition, the IDD and TEDD programs are winding up, and the Air Force, citing its preference for dual-use dogs, is keen to kill the SSD program in favor of a PEDD course with more training devoted to off-leash activities.

Further, JIEDDO — now renamed JIDA — began downplaying the importance of dogs in counter-IED work. “Among the systems, we still employ the dogs, but we’re sort of de-emphasizing them because we find that other technologies are far more effective,” JIEDDO spokesman Rod Korba told the Washington Times in 2012. “The problem is our troops end up befriending these animals and they engage with them on different levels, and it kind of hurts their effectiveness.”

These are all foreboding signs for the military working dogs that saved thousands of lives during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As we look to Syria and the possibility of American boots on the ground in future war zones, we should be asking ourselves whether we want to deprive our soldiers of the best tool available to deal with a weapon that has killed and maimed thousands of servicemen and women.

The military already asked itself this question. “We’ll always have a requirement to have canine assets to counter IEDs because IEDs are here to stay,” Army Lt. Col. Richard A. Vargus said in 2011.

Let’s hope the Pentagon remembers that.