'Afghan Hounds' Protect Coalition Forces
By Pfc. Kelly Hunt, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan, July 30, 2003 They travel all over the world, from the United States to Egypt to Kosovo, working side by side with troops, searching trucks, buildings and people for narcotics and explosives. These canines lifelines for military safety are here protecting the coalition forces and the surrounding area from threats of terrorism.
Each day, working dogs at the gate carry out their mission of keeping explosive devices from entering base. These dogs are called on to engage in a wide spectrum of missions, said Army Sgt. Jon Lockhart, explosive-detection dog handler and former kennel master. At one point, for example, the dogs searched the bags of personnel in the newly established Afghan National Army during health and welfare missions, said Lockhart.
Establishing a dedicated working dog takes hours of hard work; the selection process is a lengthy one.
Hand picked, these dogs undergo several tests before being chosen to join the U.S. military. They receive between 110 and 120 days' training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and become either explosive-detection/drug dogs or patrol dogs. They go through several certifications once they reach their installations, where they'll remain throughout their career.
The dogs not only help catch perpetrators, they also help to deter people from committing crimes and prevent troops from using contraband, said Lockhart. "It helps troops keep their head on the main mission."
"The dogs are definitely being utilized and they work really hard," said Army Staff Sgt. Michael Kwiatkowski, kennel master. "They're always training or working."
Training certifies them on new odors and new detection techniques. Kwiatkowski said the continuous training process is never completed: It not only maintains the dog's skills, but also helps the duo to become better as a team. "These guys are always training and coming up with new ideas," he said. "Even though we have a standard to get here, everyone continues to train, because our lives are in our dogs hands.
"Everything we put into that dog is going to help us out," he added.
The hard work is worth it, said Lockhart, who believes his unique military occupation is one of the best jobs in the military. "I just like working day in and day out with the dogs," he said. "It's not something that a lot of soldiers get to see."
The handlers work constantly with the dogs, making them aggressive and mission oriented. One type of training is called patrol training, Lockhart said. "What we try to do (in this training) is get the dog to be more aggressive in his bite, so when the dog actually bites, he won't let go."
Wraps, or bite sleeves, are used during this training to protect the handler from the dog's tough bite. Another handler, during the training exercise, uses a type of cord, and as the dog bites down on the wrap, the handler will pull the dog back with the cord, strengthening his bite.
But, all the hard work and long hours eventually get to the dogs and their searching process begins to slow down, said Kwiatkowski. After an average of eight years, the dogs "retire" and are adopted out to loving families where they can enjoy the rest of their lives.
Lockhart and his dog were at the Bagram base when it first opened. But after nine years in the service, the dog may be on his last tour of duty.
"He's probably going to retire when we get back to our home station," said Lockhart.
Kwiatkowski is on his sixth dog. Though it's a sad moment when the dogs leave, he said the handlers are happy for their hard-working dogs when the time comes to say goodbye to their companions.
"In a way you feel good for the dog because he served his time and it's time for him to ETS (estimated time of separation), " said Kwiatkowski. "It's good for the dogs to retire and get a break because they work really hard."
(Pfc. Kelly Hunt is assigned to 4th Public Affairs Detachment.)