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One step away: military working dogs close in on the end of training at Lackland.

1 November 2011

On Oct. 26, 2010, nearly a month before he was scheduled to return home, Marine Sgt. Jonathon Blank lost both legs in an improvised explosion device blast during a mission and was medically evacuated with three other wounded Marines.

Because of the higher IED threat, many military working dogs from other areas had been moved to Kandahar province. As a result, Blank's combat and reconnaissance patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, had entered a building in Sangin without the dog it had on earlier missions.

"If we had our dog with us, I know she would've found all the IEDs in that compound," Blank said. "I'd probably still be walking around and serving today."

While Blank was at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, working with the Belgian Malinois dog he adopted as his service animal in October, another group of dogs moved one step closer to their own duties as MWDs.

Seven of eight dogs in the "R" litter successfully completed puppy training, and four moved into the 341st Training Squadron's Dog Training Section in August. Two of the dogs, including Rrespect, were in pool status while they awaited their training start date. One dog, Rrevae, didn't qualify for dual training as explosives detection and patrol because of her reluctance to bite, but is training as a specialized search dog. Rrigatoni was the only "R" litter dog who didn't make it into training. Her foster parent adopted her.

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A couple of weeks into his training, Rruuk stood on his back legs in the DTS training lab for his 14-day progress check. He sniffed at a shelf 4 feet from the floor, detected an odor and then crouched into a sitting position to await his reward--a big, rubber ball from his trainer. Despite a caudectomy, a medical amputation of his tail, due to an injury caused by repeatedly slamming his tail against his kennel fence, Rruuk continues his rapid progress. He loves to search. He loves to bite. And he loves his reward for working.

"In my world, you don't want a dog you have to coax to do anything," said Bernadine Green, the breeding program assistant manager and training supervisor, who also was Rruuk's foster parent before he began puppy training. "You want a dog that comes right out of the gate and says, 'Let's go to work.' He's that kind of dog."

Rrespect, Rruuk and the rest of the "R" litter were born June 2, 2010, at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Breeding Program at Lackland. Their names begin with repeated first letters to designate them as products of the breeding program. Each litter is named with successive letters in the alphabet, restarting with an A after each Z litter.

When breeding program dogs complete puppy training, they move over to DTS training, which consists of 120 training days, split evenly between explosives detection and patrol work. Just as there is a major transition from foster care into puppy with trainers on a team ranging from four to seven people. Trainers quickly discovered from the first four "R" litter dogs that they learned much of what they needed from their puppy trainers.

"These dogs were bred for this," Green said. "The breeding program trainers were able to do some advanced patrol training with them and even had the dogs on bite suits. They actually had the puppies searching, alerting and sitting on the training aids before they ever went over to DTS. They were doing training that the dogs normally would've done in DTS, so some of these puppies should burn through DTS training like nobody's business. "

While Rruuk's primary trainer, Tech. Sgt. Michael Iverson, was away on temporary duty a couple of weeks into his training, Staff Sgt. Victor Nelson stepped in his place. He saw in Rruuk much of what he's observed in many dogs from the breeding program.

"I compare it to coaching Barry Sanders' or Michael Jordan's son," Nelson said. "It's just a matter of guiding them along the path. As far as genetics and talent, they already have it."

The "R" and "U" litters were the only litters produced by two of the program's most productive breeders--Arnold and Ssonja. So far, the "U" litter has shown as much, if not more promise than the "R" litter, with at least two "outstanding dogs," said Dr. Stewart Hilliard, military working dog logistics chief. Then 7--month--old Uumbro particularly impressed with his bite work at an Air Education and Training Command seminar at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.

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Ssonja is now retired, but Arnold was bred with her sister Sscarlett for a litter that was whelped in October. The breeding program staff plans to continue this bloodline by breeding one of the "R" offspring, Rrespect, with a successful Belgian Malinois stud in the Netherlands named Robbie Smulders. The program already has a male, female and one complete litter sired by Robbie Smulders.

"This litter of dogs represents what we call a DOD bloodline," Hilliard said. "[The 'R' litter] are the fourth generation of DOD breeding, and they are an outstandingly successful litter. Seven out of eight of these dogs passed their tests admitting them to training. What this showed us was that the combination of our most successful stud dogs with a dog from our bloodline could be very successful.

"One of the interesting things about breeding is there are no guarantees. Even if we've had a very successful breeding of a particular male and female, if we repeat the breeding, there is no guarantee the result is going to be as good as the first time. This shows you that genetics are highly variable, that environment plays a big role, and it is very subtle interactions between genetics and environment that lead to good working dogs."

The "R" litter dogs are rapidly closing in on the end of their MWD training at Lackland and the day when most of them will get their base assignment and meet their first handlers. Once she completes her DTS training, Rrespect will remain at Lackland for breeding and to work as a training aid. Rruuk, Rromano, Rrobiek and Rroddie are scheduled to finish DTS training in early February, but trainers expect Rruuk to finish much sooner.

Meanwhile, Blank, who now has a computerized knee on his right side and a mechanical knee on his left, continues his rehabilitation. He's working toward getting his final prosthetics while he also gets to know Kelsey, the 5--year--old Belgian Malinois he adopted as his service dog. He knows more than anyone how more dogs like those in the "R" litter could be lifesavers for Soldiers and Marines.

"I would say they're priceless because they save lives and limbs of service members," Blank said. "We had pictures of guys standing on the exact same spot my IED was. There are only so many things we can do with metal detectors and visually inspecting the area and probing the ground.

"As much as it costs to train a dog, to get a dog in service, in the end, their training and sacrifice saves Soldiers' and Marines' lives and keeps them in the fight," Blank said. "If I had a dog there that day, I'd still be serving today, bringing all my knowledge and determination to the fight."
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Author:Roughton, Randy
Publication:Airman
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1230
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