CAMP DWYER, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan -- The Marine Corps believes it has found the right dog for the counter-IED fight, but it’s not the traditional military working dog.
It’s a Labrador Retriever, and it resembles Lassie more closely than Rin Tin Tin.
Unlike the German Shepherd, which was carefully bred to herd sheep and fend off predators, the Labrador Retriever was bred to go fetch.
Originally created to help Canadian hunters catch game, today’s typical Labrador is catching Frisbees. The energetic yet even-tempered canine has become arguably the most common household pet in the world.
Yet the Labrador remains an able hunter, and therefore a competent aid to Marines conducting the delicate search for makeshift explosives, say those familiar with the Marine Corps’ counter IED efforts.
Sgt. Steven Basham, the kennel supervisor with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, said the Marine Corps began taking more interest in Labradors after an Auburn University study highlighted the breed’s hunting instinct, disposition and controllability, or “how you could control the dogs with whistles and arm signals.”
Although some German shepherds have been converted to “bomb dogs,” they’re more difficult to remotely control than the Labradors – a disadvantage in the current counterinsurgency environment.
“Bomb dogs were mainly created for the urban terrain, whereas the [Labradors] were meant to work off leash,” explained Basham, from Hawesville, Kentucky.
Typically, Marines push the Labradors out front during patrols, Basham said. Labradors can smell 17 different odors associated with homemade explosives, and the dogs’ noses can sometimes detect what the Marines’ combat metal detectors can’t, he explained.
With its unique abilities, the Labrador has created a tactical niche for itself within the Corps’ counter-IED strategy. The trained Labradors are officially called IED Detection Dogs, and Marine Corps Systems Command has designated a program manager to further incorporate the IDDs into counterinsurgency operations.
Lt. Col. Kenneth Burger, the program manager, said the IDD force is already slated to increase from 315 to 647 dogs.
“The first handler course that reflects the increase in IDDs started April 9, 2011, but will not be realized in-theater until September 2011, when the first unit will deploy with an increased number of dogs,” said Burger, from Tacoma, Wash. “The number of IDDs deployed will go for some 130 to approximately 285. A typical infantry battalion that used to get 13 dogs will now get 34.”
Not only is the program increasing in size, it’s increasing in sophistication.
Burger said the Marine Corps is signing on more Field Service Representatives to provide ongoing training to the IDDs and their handlers.
“In conjunction with the increase in IDDs,” Burger said, “each unit receiving IDDs will also be given a FSR who will not only train in the [U.S.] with the unit, but will deploy with them as well."
The FSRs are necessary because IDD handlers receive limited training, Burger said. Traditional dog handlers attend a formalized Department of Defense school to earn a secondary military occupational specialty, whereas IDD handlers receive about five weeks of basic instruction and four weeks of integration training with their unit. The IDD training is simply designed to give the handlers basic skills without interfering with their predeployment training, he said.
"Due to the limited training the IDD handlers receive," Burger said, "FSRs become very important, as they provide oversight on in-theater training and can conduct in-theater homemade explosive imprinting."
“Our FSR requirement has increased dramatically,” added Burger. “Where we once had three FSRs in theater supporting the IDD program, we’ll now grow to 12: one per unit with IDDs, and two at [each Regimental Combat Team]. This increase in FSRs will not go into effect until Sept. 11, on par with the increase of IDDs in theater.”
Currently, two private contracting companies conduct the IDD training: American K-9 Interdiction, based out of Carrsville, Va.; and K2 Solutions, Inc., Southern Pines, N.C.
“The IDDs undergo 14 weeks of training prior to being presented for certification; however, even upon certification, IDDs must continually undergo sustainment training to maintain proficiency and conditioning,” Burger said.
The training for the handlers is also continuous, he said.
“Full unit integration training occurs during the unit’s participation at Enhanced Mojave Viper, [Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.]," Burger said. "Prior to deployment, handlers will also participate in one week of refresher training.”
According to Burger, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show the program is helping in the counter-IED fight; however, because the program is new, progress is difficult to quantify.
“We have just recently begun to receive qualitative data on a monthly basis that provides a correlation between the number of patrols with IDDs and the number of IED finds,” he said. “We continue to try to improve the reporting process and how to adequately determine IDD success.”
Basham said Marines should remember that there is no perfect solution to IEDs. Just as metal detectors can’t detect non-metallic bomb parts, dogs may not be able to smell trouble every time.
However, as the counter-IED fight evolves, the Corps has yet another weapon to unleash.