Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 21, 2009 - Dogs are known as "man's best friend," and in recent years, they also have become a soldier's best friend. With their keen sense of smell, dogs have taken on the dangerous duty of finding weapons and explosives in the combat zones of the Middle East.
Army Sgt. Jess Storie, an off-leash dog handler with the 94th Engineer Detachment out of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Jose, his black Labrador retriever, are front and center in the constant battle to eliminate dangerous weapons before they can be used to hurt or kill.
They're one of only seven dog teams that support Baghdad and the outlying province, officials said.
"Me and Jose have been together just a little over a year. This is our first deployment together," Storie, a Claremore, Okla., native, said. "He was a 'green' dog when I got him, so this is his first deployment also."
Storie, a combat engineer by trade, is on his third deployment to the Middle East. He was involved mostly in raids and route clearance during his first and second deployments. Wanting a change, he said, he jumped at the chance to get involved in the specialized search dog program.
"When this program popped up, I was at Fort Hood [Texas], and it took me a year and a half just to get to Fort Leonard Wood to see if I could qualify to get into the dog program," he said.
To qualify for the program, a dog and handler must undergo a rigorous training process.
"You go through a selection process to even be considered to be a dog handler," Army Sgt. 1st Class John Harmon, a kennel master and native of Great Falls, Mont., said. "It's pretty intense."
Once they're accepted into the program, the dog and handler go through a weeklong training process at Fort Leonard Wood that weeds out unacceptable candidates, he explained. "Once that's done, they go to Lackland Air Force Base [Texas] for a four-and-a-half-month training [regimen] with the dog," he added.
After the course at Lackland, the dog and handler return to Fort Leonard Wood for another month or two of training before they go through a validation process.
"If they pass the validation, they are certified for one year," Harmon said.
Following certification, soldier-dog teams must pass quarterly validations and train for six hours a week.
"Part of the specialized search dog program is a 'one dog, one handler' concept, where once you train with that dog and certify with that dog, you're the only one that can handle ... or work that dog whatsoever," Harmon said.
"We work 'off-leash,' so you've got to have a better bond with the dog working out at distances anywhere from 100 to 200 meters," he continued. "The dog's got to be able to trust you, and you've got to be able to trust the dog. That's why the biggest focus is on spending time on building up that rapport, that relationship."
The reason for the tough training and certification process becomes evident in a combat zone, as dog and handler search for hidden weapons and explosives.
On a recent mission in Baghdad, the months of training and living together paid off, not only for Storie and Jose, but also for the members of their unit.
"We got out of the vehicle, and I was somewhere in the middle," Storie recalled. "The commander's Humvee was somewhere up front. First thing we did was search around the commander's Humvee.
"There was a pipe laying there on the ground and the dog showed some interest, so I pulled him back and moved the Humvee back and got [explosive ordnance disposal experts] to show up," he continued. "They picked it up and ... it had wires sticking out of it, and they assumed it was an improvised explosive device."
After they did an immediate sweep, the dog and handler found two more artillery rounds on the ground, Storie said.
An EOD team safely disposed of the bomb and rounds.
"When he finds something, I don't really honestly know how to explain it," Storie said of Jose. "We continue to train daily -- mission or not, we still train. So when you find something, it definitely feels like all the hard work that you put into it is paying off. It's a really satisfying job."
(Army Staff Sgt. Brock Jones serves in Multinational Division Baghdad.)