Every dog team needs to go through certification before deploying to Afghanistan. This test of the dog and handler is conducted by high ranking dog experts in the Military Working Dog program, people with years of experience working dogs on the street and in hostile environments as Military Police. The testing consists of multiple venues stretched across several days, in which the dog teams must perform a variety of searches without missing any hides. Military Police work their dogs using different search and handling techniques than we do, so there was an added concern that they would feel we were doing things wrong, just because we worked our dogs in different ways than they were used to seeing.
Having such experienced people critique the our every move, with failure resulting in the handler being stripped of their dog and sent back to their unit in Afghanistan, placed an enormous amount of pressure on us to succeed. No one wanted to give up their partner who they had just spent the past 2 months bonding and training with, just to go back to their unit a failure. The trainers had done their best to prepare us for successful deployment, using their intimate knowledge of each team to build training venues that would challenge both the handlers and dogs, and to address individual issues any of the dog teams were having. They tried to put us at ease with the upcoming certification, explaining to us that it was just another training day, but we were definitely under the gun. We knew it was a pass or fail situation, and our careers as dog handlers were on the line.
Unlike Military Police dog teams, who just keep trying to certify until they pass, our units were waiting for us in Afghanistan. We were going down range either with, or without, our dog. Our months of training, preparation and hard work had culminated in 4 days of testing, administered by people we had never worked with. Our trainers would understand if a dog team had an off day. It happens to everyone. Our certifying officials had no prior knowledge of our dogs, so their opinion of you as a team was formed on that first day of testing. You can never change a first impression.
We were gathered outside the kennels, anxiously awaiting the arrival of our trainers and certifying officials. You could feel the tension in the air. There was no witty banter, no horseplay. Everyone had a knot in their stomach. Heath came over and gave us a pep talk, trying to life our spirits and prepare us for the day. It helped a little, seeing his confidence in us, hearing his words of encouragement. The Sergeant Major, accompanied my a Master Sergeant, pulled up in his SUV and hopped out to get things under way. He must have seen the apprehension in the group because he immediately tried to put us at ease.
“Hey guys, this is going to be an easy day for you and your dogs. I’m not trying to screw anybody out of certification. We need to see 3 things when you come out to a venue. Can your dog recognize odor? Can you see the change of behavior in your dog when it is on odor and communicate that to us? Do you search in a complete, thorough, and safe manner? This is just another day of training. Come out there and do your thing like you have been over the last 2 months, and you won’t have anything to worry about.”
We divided the dog teams into 2 groups and headed out to decide our fates. I drove out to the first certification venue and prepared for the first test. I got my gear on and made sure I had plenty of water. It was promising to be a hot day with the temperature already over 90 degrees at 8 in the morning. We had some time to kill. I had decided to go last in our group because the heat didn’t effect Fama as much as some of the other dogs, so I got Fama out of her crate and took her off to the side do her business and to have a little talk.
“Hey mama, we have an important day in front of us. I promise not to let you down, and I trust you to do the same. I know we have had our disagreements, but I think you want to stay with me just as bad as I want to stay with you. Let’s go find some bombs.”
When a dog team finished a venue they walked to a separate holding area to wait for the rest of the group. The certifying officials didn’t want anyone to inform the handlers that were waiting to run where the hides were located. The group awaiting their turn to go could see the finished teams walking to their respective holding area, and there were a lot of heads hung low and dejected shuffles . Our confidence was sinking as we saw the failure written on the wall. The last handler in line before me was called to the venue to prove their worth, and my heart was in my throat.
Fama and I approached the Sergeant Major, who was talking with Eddie and Mark, at a compound where we would run our first venue. The Sergeant Major asked how we were doing and gave us a quick brief on what we were to do. I could see the desperate hope on the faces of my trainers, which caused me to swallow a lump in my throat. I was familiar with the compound, as we had trained there before. There were rooms along the outside wall of the 50 yard square compound. I took a deep breath, put Fama on the long line, and went right to work.
Fama went to the right, just inside the compound, heading towards the first room. I waited outside, watching through the door as she performed her clockwise search of the room. She threw a change of behavior, with her head snapping back to the left and her tail going crazy, and sat, indicating on a chair in the corner. I said, “Stay,” to indicate to the certifying official that she had responded in the room.
“No,” said the Sergeant Major.
My heart sank. Fama was never one to false indicate, so I went over to see what had happened. The chair she indicated on was of the banquet hall variety, and there was an indent in the vinyl on the seat that I quickly identified as being left by a short link of machine gun ammunition, and there was definitely residual odor present that Fama had indicated on. My first reaction was to argue with the Sergeant Major, but I decided that I could plead my case later, and for the benefit of my dog, I should just get her back to work. I praised her for doing a good job as I pulled her out of the room, and directed her to continue the search around the compound.
We were working at a pretty good pace, as the rooms were small, and I knew that if there was a hide in that small of a room, Fama would pick it up almost immediately upon entering the room. After 3 more blank rooms, she exhibited a huge change of behavior, leaving tracks in the gravel of the courtyard as she whipped around, searching for the source of the odor. I was elated. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Fama was on odor, and we were about to pass our first certification venue. She drug me right over to a small, hidden room at the back of the compound, bracketing along the way. She reached the doorway of the room and headed right in, her sniffing audible over my footsteps. I waited outside in the courtyard for a few seconds, giving her a chance to work it out and sit. I peeked in the doorway, and there she was, kicking up dust with her tail, nose planted 2 inches from a tarp laying on the floor that was obviously concealing the hide. I said, “Stay,” with great confidence, and reached into my pocket for the ball. There was no doubt in Fama’s mind, or mine, that there was a bomb under that tarp. I didn’t even wait for a response from the Sergeant Major, I just threw the ball and started the party.
After the doggie Macarena concluded and I got my ball back, the Sergeant Major said we were done, and called me over for a word. We jogged over to where he and the trainers were standing.
“Good job today Sergeant,” he said. “That’s a good looking dog you’ve got there. What happened in that first room?”
“Sergeant Major, it looks like there was a few rounds of linked 7.62 ammo sitting on the chair in the corner, but someone removed them. The indentation is still in the chair. I believe my dog was indicating on residual odor and not false sitting,” I said.
“Well, let’s just go check it out and see.”
The 4 of us proceeded to the first room, where Fama supposedly false indicated, and the Sergeant Major stepped through the door, looking for the chair. I pointed it out to him, and he immediately saw the 7 indentations in the vinyl, shaped like bullets, with some rust and crud left on the seat where someone had removed them earlier.
“You send that dog back in here and we will see what she does,” he said, so I waited by the door until everyone was outside the room, unhooked Fama’s leash, and gave her the search command, directing her to go back into the room. I stepped back away from the door so the Sergeant Major wouldn’t think I was giving my dog a cue to respond in the right area. Sure enough, she made her way back around the room to that chair and sat, her nose pointing right at the dents on the seat. I had a big smile on my face when I walked past the Sergeant Major and tossed the ball to Fama.
“I guess you were right Sergeant. We should have spotted that earlier in the day, but no one bothered to tell us until now.”
Our praise party was extra special that time. Fama was doing a great job at making me look good, and I wanted her to know I appreciated it. We headed towards the entrance to the compound to go to the next venue. Eddie and Mark gave a thumbs up and high five for our good performance on the way by. I was feeling really good about us as a team. The nervousness was gone. There were no more thoughts about failure. I was just excited to run another venue with my dog.
The next certification venue was a building about 50 yards long, that consisted of 7 rooms in a row with doorways between all the rooms. Because of the wind, I decided to search the exterior of the building prior to going inside. With Fama off leash, worked our way down one side of the building, around the end, and were heading back down the other side of the building when Fama took off, obviously on odor. She was going pretty fast, indicating that either the source was close, or the hide was big. I just observed her working and started to look for probably places for the hide to be located. She hit the brakes, spun around, and headed through a doorway into the building. I hurried to the doorway to see what was going on inside, and when I got there, I had to turn around and laugh.
The hide was up on a shelf in the corner of the room, about 7 feet in the air. In front of this shelf was a 3 foot by 3 foot plywood box, 4 feet tall, that I assume the certifying official used to reach the shelf when he planted the training aid. Fama had jumped up on the box, and was sitting with her front paws right at the leading edge of the box, stretched out, with her nose just barely touching the edge of the shelf. Her tail was pounding out Moby Dick on the plywood box. She was trying to make herself long enough to reach the hide with her nose while staying in the sit position. The certifying official had come through the building so he could see if Fama was indicating in the right location. He walked through the door into the room and shared the same reaction I had, chuckling and shaking his head.
We were on our way back to the truck when I saw John and his dog Taz walking up to the venue. Little Taz is a Pit-Lab mix, full of energy. I had noticed the wind shift in such a way that Taz might detect the odor from the far side of the building, so I stopped and watched the beginning of their search. John began by going down the same side of the building I had started on, and when Taz walked by a small window that was 5 foot off the ground, he put his feet up on the wall, gave a good sniff, and jumped right through the window. John looked both ways down the side of the building, and threw up his hands. There were no doors. He ran back to the end of the building where he started, heading in to find his crazy dog. We walked back to the truck, deeply satisfied, with Taz’s praise party as our soundtrack.