MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII -- Fortifying Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s defenses against intruders and security threats are 14 well-trained sentinels who do their jobs unstintingly, patrolling the base at all hours. They exemplify Gen. James N. Mattis’s advice: “Demonstrate to the world there is ‘no better friend, no worse enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.” In this case, let’s call them furry, four-footed Marines.
Just the sight of a military working dog is enough persuasion to abandon criminal plans, according to Sgt. Daniel Pierce, chief trainer at the K-9 unit of the Provost Marshal’s Office at MCB Hawaii and native of Tyngsboro, Mass.
“Military working dogs are a visual deterrent,” Pierce said. “A lot of times our (military) dogs are as nice as every other dog. It’s just that ours are trained to attack.”
At an outdoor K-9 unit demonstration April 5 at Mokapu Elementary School, students found it hard to keep quiet and motionless, wanting to break out in cheers to express their awe and admiration at the speed with which the dogs launched themselves at human decoys. Pierce told the students they needed to stay silent and still to avoid attracting the canines’ toothy attention.
Despite the admonition, one boy couldn’t resist shouting gleefully: “Release the beast!” By a show of hands, nearly all the children indicated they had seen K-9 demonstrations before. But they were clearly enthralled at having a front-row seat, on the grassy grounds of the k-sixth-grade school, to another exhibition of the military working dogs’ talents and their trainers’ control over them and rapport with them.
Christopher LeFebvre, of Kaneohe, a civilian with the Military Police at MCB Hawaii, encased himself in a “marshmallow suit” to protect against the military working dogs’ attacks. After the demonstration, LeFebvre showed the audience that even with the thick padding, he sustained shallow “pressure bites” on his forearms and extensive bruising under the arm, drawing loud oohs and aahs from the students.
All military working dogs of the U.S. Department of Defense undergo rigorous training at Joint Base San Antonio - Lackland in San Antonio, Texas. It takes 120 days for them to complete basic training to patrol and detect explosives and narcotics. They are predominantly German shepherd and Belgian Malinois breeds.
“The German shepherd and Belgian Malinois have the best overall combination of keen sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence and adaptability to almost any climatic condition,” according to a fact sheet from the Air Force 341st Training Squadron, which operates the Military Working Dog Program at Lackland.
Dogs can run twice as fast as humans. But it is the canine sense of smell that is truly astonishing. We can taste a teaspoon of sugar in a mug of coffee. A dog’s sense of smell is so acute that it can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, according to dog researcher Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College, part of Columbia University.
The military working dogs’ superior sense of smell is crucial in executing their tasks of sniffing out bombs that may be hidden underground, or tracking an enemy concealed behind a door or wall.
“When you walk into a pizza shop, you smell pizza,” said Sgt. Joshua Sutherland, kennel master for the PMO at MCB Hawaii and native of Lexington, Ky. “When a military working dog goes into a pizza shop, he can smell all the individual odors of the ingredients of that pizza -- the dough, the cheese, the tomato sauce.”
That ability to identify the teeniest whispers of different scents has saved many human lives as the military working dogs have deployed alongside Marines in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“The men and women who serve as military working dog handlers are the tip of the spear in protecting our combat forces and our nation,” Air Force Maj. William Roberts, 341st Training Squadron commander, said at a ceremony at Lackland in 2011 to honor military working dog handlers fallen in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They walk ahead of the patrols searching for planted explosives,” he said. “They enter the unknown searching for threats, and they confront danger and restore order.” As of mid-April, 11 Marines were among the 23 dog handlers killed in action, according to squadron officials.
Pierce, who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan three times, said he and his military working dog worked “out in front with the squad as we’re going through, searching for improvised explosive devices, just making sure they don’t miss anything.”
Sutherland has been deployed once, in Iraq. “These dogs on deployment become like family, they’re like your best friend. It’s 24/7. You sleep with them, eat with them,” he said. He was able to adopt the dog he deployed with. “I got a really close bond with that dog, and it’s just great. Her name’s Iireland.” A Belgian Malinois, now 10 years old, she was bred in the Lackland puppy program, denoted by the double letters in her name.
Sutherland said he loves his job. “Where else can you work and get paid to interact with dogs and teach dogs things and just train every day for certain situations. It’s a blast.”
In Iraq, Sutherland and Iireland led patrols, searching for IEDs. She was retired because she has degenerative spine disease. Military working dogs can work as long as they can fulfill their responsibilities. At MCB Hawaii, the K-9 unit has dogs that are as old as 12 years, Pierce told the schoolchildren at Mokapu.
The dogs’ precision performance impressed one youngster at Mokapu so much that he asked Pierce, “Can you train my dog?” The chief trainer smiled and said, “I probably could, but I have to focus on these dogs.”
“The (military working) dog is going to bite whatever is moving – an arm, the back,” Pierce cautioned the students at Mokapu. “We have a couple of dogs that can jump on your back. It’s actually awesome to see that.”
Pierce said: “These dogs are trained to bite and hold. The moral of the story is don’t ever run from a (military working) dog.”