The group of handlers that we left in Arizona had completed their certification, with 7 dog teams meeting success. We welcomed them to Afghanistan and into the tent, bringing our number to 15. Some of the handlers had switched partners to a dog more suited to their personality. Adam, a soldier from my unit that I had deployed with to Iraq, was paired up with a goofy black Lab by the name of Midnight, who matched his personalty to a tee. Both of them were loud, full of fun, and did everything with carefree abandon. When they were around, it was the Adam and Midnight show.
We spent a couple of days showing the new handlers around and letting them get settled in before we started training together. We tried to prepare the new handlers for the decrease in ability they were going to experience until their dog’s acclimatized, but they didn’t listen any more than we did. They had just passed certification and were riding that high right into their first day of training in Afghanistan. On their third evening in country, we headed out to the same gravel lot where Fama had her first miss a month prior. I volunteered to go first.
The new group of handlers were standing behind us, out of the search area, so they could watch. Gary decided to take it easy on them and let them know where the hide was located, in case their dog’s had trouble locating it. Fama was walking across the gravel like she was borne on the stuff. I sat her next to me, unhooked her, and put her to work. She took off like she was shot out of a gun, butt up, nose down, working like a champ. She made half a pass across the lot and snapped around, rocks flying from her burn out. She didn’t even bracket the odor. It was like she buried the bomb and was running out to show us where it was located. She sat down, waiting for the ball, which was quickly on it’s way. It was simple as that, after a month of training, playing fun games all over the FOB on every surface imaginable and running for hours on paved roads and gravel paths.
We went around the corner to where Luchian was waiting and ran a route clear that Fama handled with as much ease. Luchian and I were talking about the new group and their certification in Arizona while she was working, jetting around like a puppy again, looking like the Fama of old. Finding the bomb and making it look easy was the norm, and my trust was coming back. I returned to the truck and put Fama up after getting her some water and throwing her Nylabone in her crate, which I had place a short distance from the rest of the group. Fama still didn’t play well with others in her crate.
I walked back to the first venue to watch the other handlers run, anxious to see how the late arrivals performed. John was walking up with Taz when we heard Fama go nuts back by the truck, issuing a string of death barks in a fury. We turned around in time to see Travis, one of the new group, stumble backwards and fall on his butt. It seemed he walked down to Fama’s crate to investigate and she let him know just what she thought of him.
John looked at me with a smile. “Got him.”
“They never learn,” I said.
Travis dusted himself off and ran to join us, his cheeks red with embarrassment.
Taz, Bruno, Griff, Chatsi, Alex, Bak, and Fil all performed flawlessly on both venues, and it was time for the cherries to get their feet wet. We were all hoping for the best, for the handler’s sake, but it was not to be. Most of the dogs struggled with the harsh surface of the gravel, some of them almost refusing to walk, let alone search. We tried to help lift the spirits of the handlers, but there was nothing we could say except that it would get better. We knew how they felt, and it was not fun having your ego crushed on such a simple venue.
The next morning, we ran another couple of short venues that Fama performed well on, but our total working time was only about 15 minutes, which didn’t even put a dent in Fama’s daily supply of rocket fuel. She was jumping around the room, tossing toys and boots around, trying to get me to play, but it was almost 130 degrees outside, and I didn’t feel like running in the heat, so I decided it was time to train Fama to run on the treadmill. I broached the subject with Gary and he thought it was a great idea, but that we shouldn’t stop at training Fama. All the dogs could benefit from some afternoon PT (Physical Training), so we would just line them up and train them all.
Gary, Luchian, Fama and I headed to the gym, located a short walk away from the tent, and talked with the head guy in charge of the gym to be sure that it was acceptable for us to bring our dogs in to train. Fama and I waited outside during the negotiations, playing fetch with a couple of tennis balls to get her warmed up. Luchian stuck his head out the door and called us in to begin our training. Fama and I walked through the door and activity came to a standstill in the tent. You would have thought a chimpanzee just rode a unicycle into the gym.
Fama had never been on a treadmill, but I didn’t foresee any trouble with her. She had always handled new situations with aplomb. Gary and I quickly developed a training plan, and got to work. I rolled a tennis ball up the track in front of Fama, restraining her by her harness, and then let her go up and get it. She grabbed the ball without a second thought. I did this a few more times, having a big party every time she got up on the track. then I put her between my legs, up on the treadmill, supporting her by her harness, and Gary started the machine, bumping the speed up to a gentle walk. It was like Fama had been doing this for years.
She walked along, wondering why all of us were hooting and making oggie-boogie noises. Gary bumped the speed up to a trot, Fama easily keeping stride. I loosened up on her harness, eventually letting go all together. In the matter of 5 minutes, Fama was running on the treadmill all by herself. I handed the leash to Gary and stepped off the back of the track to see how she would react. After just a few small tugs on the leash she settled into a rhythm, happily jogging along with her tongue flapping slobber on my face as I knelt in front of her giving words of encouragement. We had quickly become the center of attention in the gym. People were crowding around the treadmill taking pictures and asking questions. After 15 minutes of running and a 5 minute cool down, I took Fama back to the tent to cool off and headed back to the gym to help train the other dogs.
Bruno was next in the gym. He announced his presence by happily barking up a storm for the first 2 minutes, biting a full water bottle, shaking water all over the floor and chasing a stray ball across the room at high speed, scattering weight lifters this way and that as he pounced on his ball. We continued training each dog through the afternoon, making a huge spectacle in the corner, jumping around like idiots making goofy play noises to encourage the dogs. I had to stop several times due to cramps in my back, and I suffered more than one bite on the hand trying to tease a dog up onto the track with a ball and moving too slow when he made his move. The big surprise of the day was Griff, who was normally a very solid dog, scared of nothing. When the treadmill was started, he sprawled out like a cat on ice, 4 legs heading to the 4 winds. He was not moving, period. The party got full on gay, trying to get Griff into the mood, but he simply ignored us and refused to play along, no matter how hard we tried.