Navy dog handlers know the value and power of their canine counterparts
JUFFAIR, Bahrain — The bite grazed the bone. Master-at-arms Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin Brown needed stitches to sew up his mauled finger. But he doesn’t blame Rocky, a feisty 4-year-old Belgian Malinois.
“It was an accident,” Brown said. “I was playing with his toy. I reached down and grabbed it real fast.”
If there’s one thing Brown, 23, has learned since joining the military working dog field, it’s the importance of patience.
“Since I’m a junior handler, the thing that I find most difficult is patience,” he said. “I used to get real angry. A dog can sense that you’re angry. I have to trust him and he has to trust me. He’s my partner.”
Brown and Rocky are with Naval Security Forces Bahrain, Military Working Dog Division. With about 18 sailors and 22 dogs, the unit is the largest in the Navy, said kennel master Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Valdivia. The division has gained six dogs in the past three years, while the Navy’s military working dog mission has grown around the world, she said.
Handlers and their dogs from across the service deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they hunt for explosives and weapon caches in huts, tunnels, caves and entry control points.
The Navy’s dogs in Bahrain are mostly German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, but the kennel also has a Dutch shepherd and a Labrador retriever. The U.S. military purchases working dogs from breeders overseas for about $4,000 a pup, the handlers said. The 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas trains the dogs and handlers from all four branches of service.
In Bahrain, the dogs and their super snouts are used to sniff out bombs or drugs on base, around the island and smaller U.S. military camps in the Middle East; at the military side of the Bahrain airport, and at the Minasulman pier, where U.S. Navy and coalition ships dock.
They also are tasked to help with Secret Service and U.S. dignitary visits in the region, from Jordan to Pakistan, providing patrol and explosive detection. Patrol duty, Valdivia said, “is the biting, aggression part of it.”
Anyone who saw the dogs in action during a demonstration last week at Naval Support Activity Bahrain knows that the canines’ bite is indeed bigger than their bark. The handlers wore thick protective arm sleeves as one dog at a time was instructed to “Get ’em.” At one point, Rocky was clamped on so tightly to decoy Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Leeds’ covering that he swung Rocky around in the air.
Leeds said his Belgian Malinois, Joey, and the other dogs can also be gentle with an unshakable devotion to their handlers.
“The dog is like a light switch — they can be turned on and off,” he said. “They can be really gentle as far as doing demonstrations for elementary schools and letting kids pet them. As soon as you flip the switch, tell him to ‘Get ’em,’ the dog will go after the bad guy,” he said.
That affectionate side can sometimes get in the way of training. Brown is trying to teach Rocky how to “low crawl.”
“If I ever have to go Iraq, if I’m taking on fire, I can low crawl with my dog,” he said.
But the first few times Brown lay down on the ground to begin the lesson, “He’d just want to lick on me,” Brown said of Rocky. “At first he was like ‘Oh yeah, Dad wants to play with me.’”