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Working Dogs, Handlers Share Special Bond

By Susan Huseman
Special to American Forces Press Service
STUTTGART, Germany, Oct. 28, 2008 - A military working dog team here is waiting to find out whether a canine warrior will be awarded the Combat Action Badge.


Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Moreno of the 554th Military Police Company puts Brando, a 7-year old German shepherd, through the paces at an obstacle course for military working dogs at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart, Germany. U.S. Army photo by Brandon Beach

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Army Staff Sgt. Cully Parr, a dog handler with the 554th Military Police Company Military Working Dog Section, was deployed to Afghanistan with Rex, an 11-year-old Belgium Malinois shepherd, when they were attacked by insurgents.

"We were caught up in a two-hour firefight – where we were engaged by the enemy with indirect fire and small arms fire – during a town hall meeting for the local Afghan community," Parr said. "For over a week we went out to villages and informed the people about the meeting. We had humanitarian aid, such as rice and other supplies, for them at the meeting to take back to their villages."

But during the meeting, enemy fighters attacked. "The first thing I did was get Rex behind a pillar, and I took up a position next to him," Parr said. Despite the ensuing chaos, Rex, a patrol and explosive detection dog, never budged. "That's where obedience training comes into play," Parr said. "He's got to stay there, so he doesn't risk getting injured."

Now back at Stuttgart, garrison life for the two might not be nearly as exciting, but it certainly isn't dull. The day starts early, at 5:30 a.m., when the dogs get the first of two feedings. Training follows.

"Obedience training is a daily occurrence," Parr said. "We'll also set up a problem where we train on odor, whether it is explosive or narcotics. We're always training to go downrange, though. We have dogs and handlers going out about every six months."

For a dog, the training is anything but work. "Everything we do is about play. When we're out looking for explosives, it's all play," Parr said. "Each dog has a little toy they're working for, whether it is a ball, a kong or a tug toy. When they find the odor, they'll sit on that odor, and then they get their toy. Rex has a rubber tug toy and loves it."

Training is a big part of the day, but there are other duties, Parr noted, including "a lot of paperwork that comes with the job."

"Everything we do with the dogs is annotated," Parr said. "We'll also get out on the gates, do fence-line checks and back patrols up when responding to alarms. We're also constantly checking the mail that's coming into the [Regional Post Office]."

The section also puts on demonstrations. "The main purpose of the demos is to allow the units to see what we're capable of doing, whether it's detection, bite work or obedience," Parr explained. "It allows them to see how they can use us when they go downrange. There are times when we're asked to do something out of the capabilities of the dog. For example, our dogs aren't trained to search mine fields. That's a different kind of dog."

Besides training, the handlers also care for the dogs. Eleven dogs are now at the kennel, as two soldiers and their dogs are deployed.

"We're responsible for training one dog, but we're responsible for the care and maintenance of at least one more," said Army Spc. Damen Tokarz, also of the 554th MP Company.

"It's a lot of work keeping the dogs groomed and cleaning the kennels," he said. "We clean their runs every day, scrub them from top to bottom and disinfect once a week, bathe the dogs a minimum of once every two weeks, brush them at least every other day, feed, water and give them their medicine." They also take the dogs that don't have handlers out for exercise.

He's not complaining, though.