Marine Cpl. Sean Grady, a dog handler and pointman with Echo Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, and Ace, an IED detection dog, post security during a patrol in Afghanistan's Khan Neshin district in 2012. (Sgt. Alfred V. Lopez/Marine Corps)
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Officials with the Marine Corps military working dog program are looking to find homes for all the service’s improvised explosive device-sniffing dogs as the Corps’ requirement for these highly trained animals draws to a close.
The Marines developed a capability for IED detection dogs, or IDDs, in response to an urgent need in 2004, when hidden explosives emerged as a major threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike other Marine military working dogs, that trained and deploy with military police handlers, IDDs were trained to deploy with infantrymen and Marines in other combat specialties, who would complete a lean five-week training program with their assigned dog before heading downrange.
At peak, the Corps had some 650 IDDs downrange and in various training facilities stateside, and the dogs stayed busy: By 2010, most of the Marine battalions deploying to war zones had IDDs attached to them.
Today, however, there are only about 100 of the dogs remaining stateside in training, and some 30 downrange. Of those 100, nearly 50 are awaiting disposition — adoption out of the program to a federal or other law enforcement agency or to a private individual. By the first quarter of 2015, all of the remaining IDDs will be gone, said Bill Childress, head of the Marines’ MWD program.
As combat operations draw to a close in Afghanistan, Childress said, the requirement for the IDDs has evaporated.
“We’re coming out of Afghanistan right now, and we don’t need that many dogs,” he said. “It’s a little costly, so we are going to do away with the capability of the dogs. But we’ll still retain the knowledge and everything there.”
The IDD capability has its roots in the Marine Corps “war dogs” program of the Vietnam era, the last period in Marine Corps history in which grunts and combat engineers also assumed the role of dog handlers downrange. But the emerging threat that IEDs presented in the early 2000s necessitated specialized training and innovative thinking.
In mid-2006, the Marine Corps opened a dog training facility at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Yuma, Arizona, in order to better train animals and handlers to work together to hunt the devices. Childress said he still can’t talk about much of the IDD-specific training for security reasons, but said dog-handler teams are able to train there with large amounts of explosives and learn to detect IEDs that have been buried underground.
The additional three weeks of training at Yuma also allows handlers to learn their dogs’ personalities and vulnerabilities. Artillery and machine gun simulators test the dogs’ tolerance of loud noises and allow the handlers to condition and develop their responses. The regimen at Yuma, which is now a requirement for all dog teams deploying to Afghanistan, also allows for vital bonding time between dogs and Marine handlers who might have only been paired up for a matter of weeks before their first patrol.
“That has truly been one of the biggest benefits for us,” Childress said. “I hear a lot of good comments: ‘That has been what saved my life;” or “That has been what saved other peoples’ lives, by me going through this course.’ ”
With the end of the IDD capability, the Yuma dog-training facility is also facing closure, Childress said. But he’s working to keep it going by repurposing it as an advanced training site for working dog teams that would be able to provide security for high-profile U.S. officials or deploy for missions anywhere in the world. The training program he envisions, he said, would include a course on advanced first aid for dogs, teaching handlers how to perform triage, conduct canine CPR, insert IVs and more.
Meanwhile, Childress said he is advertising with law enforcement agencies to try to find new work for the remaining IDDs. So far, he said, 200 of the dogs have found new work at the joint Defense Department military working dog training facility at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, while another 150 or 200 have been adopted by regional police departments and law enforcement agencies.
Private individuals can also apply to adopt a dog, though officials with the MWD program often make judgment calls on whether a household is right for, say, a Belgian malinois trained in aggression tactics. Childress said the troops who work with the dogs get the first opportunity to take them home for good.
“I have adopted a lot of dogs to injured handlers. As a matter of fact, we just did one last week or it’s getting ready to be adopted to a double amputee,” Childress said. “He’s requested his dog, and to me, that gets first priority.”