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Bahrain's dogs of war.


With one swift lunge, military working dog "Rocky" is off in a flash and reaches his target in a matter of seconds. The reward for his speed and agility is a nice oversized sleeve, worn by one lucky "victim."

Rocky, a Belgian Malinois. delivers an unpressive 900 pounds of pressure per square inch--enough to knock a full-grown man off his feet.

"Rocky is no joke," exclaims his partner, Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Johnny Mitchell.

The presence of an intimidating canine is threat enough, although their most important duty is to sniff out the bad guys and things that could go "Boom"

"The nose knows" is the motto among Master-at-Arms Sailors stationed aboard the Navy's Military Working Dog Kennel, at Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain.

"The dog's nose is absolutely amazing," said Leading Petty Officer MA1 Valerie Valdivia. "We put a lot of trust in their ability to know what is there when we don't."

Today, even with advanced technological tools, the Navy working dog is irreplaceable. Why Because, according to Valdivia, "a dog's nose Is thousands to millions of times more sensitive than a human's. It's the mind-boggling sense of smell that aids Sailors in apprehending criminals, searching for drugs and locating bombs."

It's a dog's incredible ability to separate odors that gives its handlers confidence enough to do their jobs and risk their lives.

"Dogs don't generalize smells. For example, if a human smells a hamburger, they receive the whole smell," MA3 Lisetta Gonzales L. Perez said. "A dog smells the parts of the burger individually, the bun, the pickles and the burger. How cool is that "

At NSA Kennel Bahrain, MAs know just how important their canine partners are.

"Searching through strange vehicles can be real scary," said MA3 Equita Bates." ou never know when something might go terribly wrong. If I didn't have my furry partner 'Schecker' next to me, I don't think I could do it."

This was all too often the case for MAs prior to 9/11. Now the Navy is more focused on anti-terrorism and force protection. The Navy's law enforcement community can now better search out the bad guys and possibly save Sailors' lives in the process.

Training is the name of the game for success at the Bahrain kennel. Learning how to prepare for the worst is up to both the handler and the working dog.

"Trust is everything with this job," said Perez. "ou must first build a rapport, a bond with the dog. Not like, 'Here Rover. Go fetch,' but more of an understanding and respect for my authority."

Even the breed of dog can have an effect on that dog's nature.

According to Perez, her dog, "Rhondo," a longhaired Labrador retriever and German shepherd mix has a low working drive, which means it takes some coaxing to get him to work. This can usually be accomplished by simply talking in a childish voice while making goofy faces, among other things.

"You gotta love him to make him work," said Perez. "I have to act like a fool so that he understands I am proud of him for doing something right."

Shepherds, Labradors and the Belgian Malinois are the primary breeds of dogs used, and they all have their own personalities.

"Rocky is definitely a biter," said Mitchell. "Malinois are like the wolves of the dog-handling world. Once they're properly trained, they don't forget or complain about working."

Other breeds respond best to their handlers when they are shown affection.

"Schecker, a black retriever, is almost half my weight but he is such a ham and as affectionate as a kitten," said MA3 Equita Bates. "He's my trained love hound"

Establishing a working relationship between each dog and handler is the most important aspect in training up a handling team. This concept is specifically addressed when adding new dogs to the kennel or simply matching up a Sailor to a dog.

According to Valdivia, working relationships between handler and dog work much better when personalities of both are matched as close as possible, such as a big, intimidating man being matched to a more aggressive dog.

"Obedience is the first element to be taught," said Valdivia. "The dogs are our lifeline, ou have to be with a dog that is obedient and loyal or it's like mixing oil with water."

Together handler and dog establish a partnership or working relationship through constant training.

"Rhondo can sniff out trouble better each time we do a simulated bomb search," said Perez. "The weekly train-ups are usually held in one of the many rustic warehouses behind the kennel. By using bomb components Rhondo gets a nose full of what the bad stuff smells like and how to react if he is to ever smell it again.

"That definitely helps my confidence level when it comes to not knowing what could explode in my face," said Perez.

Unlike a Sailor's P S, a dog learns through simple repetition. Learning to differentiate smells and responding to the commands of "sit," "stay," "attack" and "search" become second nature to the dogs through a repetitious reward system.

"I don't know how maw times I have said, 'Good boy,' but when I do, you can see his eyes light up with happiness each and every time," said Bates. "This isn't work for him, it is all so that I give him a big smile when the job is done."

A tasty rubber ball on a string is used in the reward process as well, the dog knows it did something right.

At NSA Bahrain the Sailors and their partners have numerous duties as MAs. Anything that comes in the AOR by air, land or sea is subject to a check by the canine units.

Dogs' noses are put to the test when they have to search the smorgasbord of scents located in and around ships.

"I remember the first time I took him out to the docks. Schecker wanted nothing to do with water or boats," said Bates. "Now he seems almost enthusiastic about our trips on the ocean. I can only imagine all the stuff that he smells out there. I bet it's like standing in the middle of an enormous trash dump."

Teams are also deployed to the local airfield to search the cargo bays of landed aircraft.

"There is no telling what people would try to smuggle into this area, especially from the air," said Perez. "I am definitely on my Ps and s when Rhondo is looking for trouble on the landing pad."

The primary duty for the working dog teams is patrolling the base and checking entering vehicles. Day in and day out, SUVs with these important shaggy passengers travel from one side of the base to the other.

"It takes time getting used to the doggy smell but just knowing that I have my buddy to help me out is well worth the odor," said Bates.

Back at the kennel, the dogs are treated as well as any Sailor in berthing. In fact, each dog has its own room furnished with a shiny bowl and plenty of paw room. MAs cater to these hairy Sailors, tending to their every need free of charge.

"I've always been a dog lover," said Bates. "I come from a family that raised chow-chows while I was growing up.

"This job, and having a constant companion, makes the working day go by that much easier," Bates said. "Funny thing is, I sometimes catch myself talking to Schecker like he was human."

That bond, built while working with the dogs can be a hard one to let go of, when the time comes.

"I am having a hard time leaving Britta," said MA2 Christopher Reduc. "She has been with me for over a year, but for me to advance as a handler, I am getting a more experienced dog at the kennel. The new dog will probably be more aggressive, but right now, it's like I am losing a best friend."

According to Reduc sometimes you just have to let go and remember that your loyal friend is just another Sailor. "It's like leaving your best buddies when you change duty stations--it can hurt just as much.

Working dogs and their handlers have a very important job on the front lines. For the working dog kennel in Bahrain, the threat is relentless, and there are some pretty good noses to the grindstone on that sandy island.

"We're all dogs of war here," said Perez.

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Story and photos by odd ranto

Frantom is a photojournalist assigned to All Hands.
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Title Annotation:military dogs
Author:Ranto, Odd
Publication:All Hands
Geographic Code:7BAHR
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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