Soldiers often treat them as pets, playing with them and feeding them the junk food that proliferates on the remote bases of
To their handlers, bomb-sniffing dogs are more like battle buddies.
"I'd trust Urmel over most people," Army Sgt. Tait Terzo said of his 4-year-old Belgian Malinois (service number: L-424).
At the same time, he said, if a bomb is lethal, better it kill a dog than a human. "I hate to say it, but I'd rather lose a dog than a person, as much as it would hurt to lose Urmel," Terzo said.
For the past year, a small band of military working
dogs — Belgian Malinois, German shepherds and Labradors — has joined
patrols in southern
The dogs are often the first line of defense for ground troops. Homemade roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, are the leading killer of U.S. forces here, accounting for 56 percent of combat deaths this year.
A few soldiers are skeptical about just how well the dogs detect the most expertly hidden bombs, but most say they feel safer when the animals lead foot patrols.
"These dogs are saving lives," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt.
Urmel has sniffed out at least 20 bombs or explosive caches over the last 10 months. Ted, a 6-year-old chocolate Lab, has detected nearly 2,000 pounds of explosives.
Last November, Ted and his handler, Army Spc.
Last month, Ted sniffed out 30 pounds of homemade explosives hidden in a haystack in the
"Yeah, that's right — he found the needle in the haystack," Sylvia said.
Most of the animals are also trained attack dogs."We call 'em land sharks," Wood said. "They're mean, lean fighting machines."
Vincent, a disagreeable Belgian Malinois, has bitten several handlers. He bit Army Sgt.
"Got too close to him, I guess," McGee said.
"Or maybe that dog is just racist," he joked. McGee is African-American.
McGee was already nursing a sore shoulder suffered when a homemade bomb exploded while he and his dog were on patrol recently.
Virtually every handler has been bitten more than
once, usually in training. Dogs and handlers train together for several
months before deploying in
The dogs are bought as puppies from breeders
worldwide. For the last seven years, dogs have also come from a U.S.
military breeding program at
The dogs are taught to sit when they detect explosives, so that they don't start digging for buried bombs. They work for rewards — a chew toy or snack in training, though never on patrol.
"Ultimately, they're working for praise from their handler," Wood said. "That's what really drives them."
Terzel and Urmel have been together three years. They flew to
Belgian Malinois make the best working dogs, the handlers say. They are leaner and more robust than the second-best breed, German shepherds.
"The Malinois have very high drive and energy," Terzel said.
Most dogs work until they are 8 to 10, though one 14-year-old is still working. On the other hand, one 4-year-old had to be "decertified," or retired.
"Too much exposure to too many bad things," Wood said.
The dogs are watched closely for signs of stress or fear when they return to the kennel from patrols. Handlers and veterinarians try to determine whether a sudden change in behavior is due to, say, separation anxiety when a handler goes on leave, or adverse reactions to an explosion. The military is conducting studies on possible post-traumatic stress syndrome in working dogs, Wood said.
Urmel handled his first bomb explosion well, Terzel said. He's been exposed to many controlled detonations; on a recent patrol, Urmel winced each time an explosives specialist screamed out "Fire in the Hole!" to announce a detonation.
"He knows that phrase pretty well," Terzel said.
Urmel, the only kennel dog allowed to wander the
handlers' working area just beyond the locked cages, follows Terzo's
every move, seeking his approval while accepting belly rubs from any
available human. But during attack training on the
As part of an exercise, Spec.
Growling and clenching, Urmel hung fast until Terzo ordered him to release.
In a second exercise, Urmel again raced after Bernardy. But this time, as the dog was about to leap and strike, Terzo shouted "Out!" Urmel veered past Bernardy, doubled back, and hovered over the suspect, growling and slobbering.
Terzo smiled down at Bernardy, who was on his face in the dirt, sweating profusely.
"Basically," Terzo said, "he's a bullet we can call back."
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