by David Winners
So there I was, 4 years old, sitting on a couch with a Saint Bernard Dog puppy trying to bite my toes. That’s when it all started. Mom was a breeder and trainer of Saints and working breeds for show, sport and work. Dilettante Dad was a mechanical engineer, chef, welder and professional musician. I was now officially hooked on everything dog. That little ball of white and orange fluff turned out to be 265 pound Charlie. The best buddy a boy could ever have.
The next 31 years were full of dogs; as pets, rescue and re-home projects, hunting partners, and clients. Then I joined the Army. Of course I wanted to be a dog handler, but to make that happen, I had to be military police for a couple of years, at least, until I had the opportunity to attempt to get into the dog program. Now nothing against the MP corps, but they suck, so I went Field Artillery, and got to blow stuff up for a few years.
Now it’s time to go to Afghanistan, and we need a couple of dog teams to go with us. None are available, but there is this new program that turns us regular “joes” into combat ready dog handlers, just like the MP guys, but better, because we aren’t MPs. My First Sergeant (read: guy in charge) picks me to go because he knows I have a lot of experience with dogs. Yay, it’s off to dog school we go!
Day 1: It’s northern Indiana in April. It is 38 degrees and raining, which is beautiful weather for that time of year. At least there was no hail. 20 of us, fresh from the island of Oahu Hawaii, are packed into a classroom to begin our illustrious careers as dog handlers. All our instructors, who are bikers with tattoos and long lists of working dog credentials, introduce themselves, followed by Ken. Ken, the owner of the kennels, is the biggest of the biker guys, has the most tattoos, and also has scars all over his arms. You would think he would be intimidating, but quite the contrary. He is potentially the most charismatic speaker I have ever seen. He is so passionate about dogs that it exudes from his pores. When he talked about how odor travels through a room, I could see it! His eyes lit up, and if he had a tail, it would have been knocking stuff on the floor. I knew I was going to like this place.
It’s time to get our dogs! We all go outside to the kennels like a big herd of anxious schoolgirls, listening to the frenzied cacophony that is a dog kennel full of a couple hundred working dogs. They start bringing out dogs and pairing them up with handlers, matching up personalities to the best of their ability. There are about 8 of us left in the gawking gaggle when Heath, super type A personalty numero uno dog guy, asks, “Who isn’t afraid of dogs?”
Well, I looked around at the rest of the guys, who are now all staring at the ground, and can’t believe it. Somebody has to step up and get the job done, right? I raise my hand and plaster a confident smile on my face. Heath, who is a former Marine smiles back in that all too knowing way, fully understanding the bravado in my gesture, and tells me to wait right there. The rest of the guys were handed their dogs right away as the trainers exited the kennels, at which time they headed across the street to an open field to break the dogs and let them run off some steam. They were merrily frolicking in the beautiful Indiana rain with their new best buddies. Heath comes out of the kennel with this beautiful female GSD, and walks straight by me, with a quick, “Follow me.”
Now I am a Non-Commissioned Officer in the United States Army! Trained to fight! I have rappelled out of helicopters, fought in Iraq, survived several IEDs, made it through ALL the Twilight movies! I’m nervous. Heath takes Fama to my SUV which contains a vari-kennel in the back, opens the kennel door, and says, “kennel,” in the most soothing of voices. Fama immediately obeys, hops up in the kennel, spins around faster than any dog has any right to move, and proceeds to try and rip his face off. Heath calmly slams the kennel door in her face, takes a step back from the vehicle, and yells (she is barking like a rabid Tasmanian devil at this point), “She’s all yours buddy! Now get her out of the kennel.”
What did I do?!?! OK, Winners. Put on your game face. There is no way this dog can know that you are nervous. Fama now has the crate door in her teeth. There is saliva, mixed with blood from her tail, on my face. I try to reassure myself that Heath, being an outstanding guy, would never put a student in any kind of danger. I gather myself, take a deep breath, go to my happy place, and summon my power animal. None of this works at all, so I just opened the crate, grabbed her collar, urged her out into the world beside me, and asked her to sit.
Heath looks at me, smiles, and says, “Well, that went better than I thought it would!”
I successfully refrained from punching him in the mouth.
Being the well honed soldiers that our Drill Sergeants raised us up to be, we had spent the previous night in preparation for the big morning. This highly detailed preparation included playing World of Warcraft, chatting on Facebook, eating at the local steak place, and participating in the jovial banter that accompanies every group of soldiers anywhere they go. What we should have done is consider the weather in Indiana, and pack accordingly for the next day of training. A phrase that didn’t really cross our minds: dogs = outside = really friggin’ cold! The instructors, being highly attuned to animal behavior, and also seasoned military veterans, noticed our shortcomings in preparation and took advantage of the situation to help us remember that we, as individuals, are responsible for our equipment. No one holds your hand in the dog world.
After spending 2 hours stumbling through calf deep wet grass, with Fama bolting around like a furry tether-ball, or that energy ball thing in the movie Men in Black (with teeth), in a steady drizzle, I was wet, had 2 holes in my brand new uniform, and I couldn’t feel my face. Lacking the $300 Gortex jacket and fleece liner that was keeping my duffel safe and warm in my apartment, I got really cold. Fama seemed to sense this, though I have no idea how as I seemed to mean about as much to her as the wet grass (nothing), so she thought she would help warm me up.
At this point in training, we were not permitted to give the dogs any correction at all. “Just hang out and let them get used to you. Start forming a bond with the dogs,” was our instruction. So when Fama decides it’s time to recreate Billy-Bob’s National Championship Tractor Pull FULL RUN, all I can do is hang on. I know you can see it in your head; ears back, chest 2 inches off the ground, feet dug in, with me leaning back at a 45 degree angle, 2 hands on the leash, loop around my wrist like a complete noob. I think to myself David, you are a dog guy. You have been doing this for years with dogs WAY bigger than…. (I check her collar for her name at this point because Fama is a ridiculous name for a dog, and my brain refuses to put the word with the picture), WAY bigger than Fama! She didn’t get the memo from my local club stating that all dogs listen to the dog guy (me). Fama is barking at every dog in the field and pulling towards them in random fashion. When Fama gets tired of having this anchor attached to her flat collar, she turns around and barks at me, with an occasional lunge for good measure. We were on our way to becoming best friends.
I look around and everyone else is having a great time. Their dogs are calming down, coming back to the handlers for sweet pets and face kisses. Some of them are standing calmly at their handler’s side, enjoying life. Fama still hasn’t made meaningful eye contact with me. I didn’t know that bonding with a dog could include 3 blisters on each hand, 2 partially separated shoulders, and a groin pull. Heath! Brother! What did you do to me!
Play time is over, and it’s time to start working the dogs. We are instructed to put our dogs in their crates, 2 of which are in the back of each SUV, and stage outside the building with 1 dog working inside, and one on-deck ready to go. I lead Fama over to the truck and open the door, remembering how the whole crate thing went last time, and asked her to sit. Now she is really excited! It’s CRATE TIME daddy! She sits with her whole body vibrating, hovering 2 inches off the ground. I’m considering calling that Copperfield guy; we could work her into one of his acts for sure! I decide I will just wait her out until she calms down, and then allow her to get what she wants; access to the crate so she can tear my face off. 15 minutes later, I cave and have to get her into the crate. The instructors are yelling at us to get into the building so we can learn something. Plus, it’s relatively warm in there, and my lips are blue. So I go through my familiar calming ritual; gather myself, take a deep breath, go to my happy place, and summon my power animal. Horse$hit. Whoever came up with this crap didn’t have a pissed off German Shepherd at the end of 6 foot of leather. I open the crate door, now she’s lunging, and give the kennel command in my tiniest, most soothing-est voice. Fama leaps into the crate, does a 360 that Tony Hawk would be damn proud of, and attacks the crate door as I slam it shut. So you want to be a dog handler, huh?!
The training barn is a pole barn of about 40 feet by 120 feet, with a dirt floor and rooms built along the walls for training activities. It is relatively clean, considering what goes on in there, and thankfully out of the elements. We receive several blocks of instruction concerning leash control and beginning search techniques. I’m really warming up now. I think I can almost feel 3 of my toes. Things are really looking up! We are to observe the dog teams that are currently working until it is our turn to bring our dogs in, so we have some idea of what to do. The first dog team enters the building, and I can see right away how this is going to go. Remember the tractor pull scene from earlier in the movie (Paramount: hint hint) multiply it by infinity, and take it to the depth of forever, and you will still have barely a glimpse of what I’m talking about. These dogs know exactly what they are about to do. The have performed in this place many, many times before, and working is the best thing in the world. MUST… GET… BALL!!!
Earlier in the day we are told by Ken, and the rest of the instructors, that our week 1 goal is to suck. We are supposed to suck. It is inevitable. Well, suck we did! Dogs are pulling handlers everywhere. Handlers are stepping on dog’s feet. Whenever a dog gets it’s reward, the handler and all those observing verbally praise the dog. If you are a PetsMartian (thanks Tresa Hendrix) you may think of praise as a quiet, “Good Boy,” with a gentle pat on the head. You would be cosmically wrong. Picture the field after the final whistle blows at the Superbowl. That is praise baby! There are 24 people going nuts every 45 seconds, and the dogs are just losing their minds. If you loved your job this much, your supervisor would have to Taser you to get you to go home. What I didn’t consider at the time was that Fama could hear all this through the sheet metal walls of the building, and that she knew exactly what was going on inside. To say that she was ready to go would be an understatement.
I’m really excited to get in there and suck with the rest of the guys, and I hit the door outside at a trot. I round the corner to where the vehicles are lined up and stop, dead in my tracks. My truck looks like one of those cars with fuzzy dice, tiny wheels, and the day-glo paint job, bouncing around the parking lot. It looks like Hulk Hogan and Randy the Macho Man are dropping flying elbows off the top rope, in the back of the SUV. No power animal this time. I just head to the door with a perfect mental image of Fama graciously complying with my request to join me in the training barn for some tea and crumpets. I open the crate and she bites me, right on the hand. Thankfully, it was just a pressure bite (all you PetsMartians calm down. Dogs bite) and I’m not even bleeding very bad. Time to get in there and get to work!
With a loud and clear, “Dog IN!” I head into the training barn with Fama on a short leash for control, yeah right, and maneuver to the first room. We go through the door into the room and she starts this warbling quiver, like a mating call for some large exotic bird (with teeth). I take my quick set of instructions, promptly forget all of them, and put her to work. Everything changed. This crazy animal mystically transforms, as if by magic, into Zen Master Quong Lee, at one with the universe. She found the training aid so fast that I really didn’t have time to do anything, let alone anything resembling dog handling, except suck. Mission accomplished. I give Fama her reward, a ball, and join in the praise fest. I actually had a tear in my eye. This was the most amazing thing I have ever seen a dog accomplish. After several reassuring words from Eddie, another big biker guy with the cutest little oggie-boogie voice, I realize it’s time to get my ball back.
Here is a disclaimer for the PetsMartians (thanks again Tresa Hendrix), and anyone else not familiar with working dog handling. Sometimes you have to take a dog’s air away to get it to let go of something. Some dogs have so much prey drive that they will not let go of a ball, or sleeve, or person, willingly. To get whatever it is that you want out of the dog’s mouth, you have to choke them, taking away their air supply, until they let go of said object. On paper, this seems cruel and abusive. In person, you quickly understand that it doesn’t bother the dog at all. They are not in pain, scared, or intimidated one little bit. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is standard procedure to take a dog off strong, by utilizing a flat, choke or prong collar, until the dog has learned the “Out” command.
The first lesson we got concerning ball retrieval was to watch Eddie guide a dog to his left hip, do some quick manipulation of the flat collar, tuck a loop of leash into his left hand while getting a bull rider’s grip on the flat collar with that same left hand, lift and twist with the left hand while easily retrieving the ball from the dog’s mouth with the right. Elapsed time, 6 seconds. It sounds kind of simple. It looks even simpler. It’s not. Have you ever been to one of those Japanese teppanyaki restaurants, where the chef throws a shrimp up in the air and slices it in half with a flick of his wrist, with it landing on your plate already sauced and ready to eat? That guy doesn’t hold a candle to Eddie.
I take Fama’s collar in my left hand, trying to mimic the deft movements of my trainer, flip in a loop of leash (elapsed time 10 seconds), lift and twist with the left and grab the ball with the right. Not right (elapsed time 20 seconds). Fama looks at me with a devilish grin and just wags her tail. I think Hey! I am a pretty strong guy. Lots of years working construction, playing bass (guitar, not large mouth), riding bikes. I’m taking this ball! So I give it the best I’ve got, pulling hard on the ball, with what I think is a sure-fire winning extra little twist to the collar. The only thing that moves is Fama’s smile. She’s really enjoying this, and that kind of bothers me. Re-grip, and go at it with some gusto! Nothing but some slaps on the butt with her tail that somehow mock me into frustration (elapsed time 2 minutes). Finally, with some help (and wise cracks about my manhood) from Eddie, I get my ball back. The rest of the repetitions were much the same, with some slow improvement on my part. It was then that it really hit me. I had a lot to learn.
If you were to watch a skilled handler performing detection work with his partner, you may think it is a simple thing, and in theory it is. You direct the dog to a search area and stay out of it’s way. You maintain a loose leash and make sure the dog searches everything in the area. It is simple in the same way that dunking a basketball is simple for Michael Jordan. There are a thousand little movements that happen all in concert with one another that culminates in a fluid motion. The handler just glides along with the dog, changing leash hands as necessary, directs the dog when it misses something, and generally just stays out of the way while performing quality control.
When we first started working, my body couldn’t keep up with my mind, which in turn couldn’t keep up with my dog. Fama searches fast; really fast. I was going left when she was going right. I was hunched over like a wrestler, trying to out maneuver my dog. All the while, Eddie was standing behind me gently urging me to do the right thing, so I’m trying to react to Fama, trying to do what Eddie is telling me, and trying not to fall on my face because I’m now wrapped up in the leash and my dog is indicating on the training aid.
During the early days of training, the aids were fairly large and the rooms fairly small. This resulted in the hides being very easy for an experienced dog to locate. Upon entering a room, Fama would go straight to work, leaving me in a position of following instead of leading. I could have been in the room next door reading Guns and Ammo for all she cared. This is strange to a person who has trained countless dogs to heel. I’m used to a dog paying attention to the slightest of movements from me, and now I have to learn to heel to her!
Throughout this whole first training day Fama was a consummate professional responding immediately to commands related to searching, and reacting instantly and decisively to the presence of odor. She was in her moment when working, constantly displaying that she was made to do this job. Her focus and determination reminded me of Bruce Lee; seriously intense. I, on the other hand, spent the day trying to keep up. I felt as awkward as I looked, typically 3 steps behind Fama, going the wrong direction with the leash in the wrong hand. I definitely had some work to do, but as per instructions, I was sucking with the best of them. Mission accomplished; time to go home.
While in school, we resided in some older 3 bedroom houses that are located about 25 minutes away from the school. After some administrative stuff and receiving our shiny new working dog equipment, it was time to go home and take care of our new best friends. We loaded up in our SUVs with our dogs in the kennels in the back and headed towards home. There were 2 handlers and dogs per vehicle, and my buddy Sly was lucky enough to have been paired up with me. We have similar tastes in music, and we share a dry sense of humor. Both of us enjoy some quiet time during our car rides, taking advantage of the opportunity to reflect on the day.
Fama crushed all hopes of peace like a milkbone under a steamroller. She barked like a banshee at Sly with her head mere inches from his. At one point he exclaimed, “I can feel her breath on my neck, and it terrifies me!” Every car that we passed induced a violent spin maneuver that threatened the stability of my mind. The sensory overload I was experiencing was like nothing I had ever imagined. It hurt to be in that truck. It was so uncomfortable that I started to laugh. At some point on the way home, she broke her tail open on the side of the crate and started flinging blood around the vehicle interior. I think something broke inside Sly that day. He’s never been the same since.
All that remained of the days activities was getting the dogs into the garage, inside their respective kennels, grooming and feeding. I thought the day was in the bag.
Military Working Dogs experience a lot of small, nagging injuries. They break toenails, get little cuts on their pads, sometimes they even break a tooth. Many times the injured dog has such a high pain tolerance and drive to work that these injuries go unnoticed throughout the course of the day. The majority of dogs used in this type of work are German Shepherd Dogs or Belgian Malinois, which are both long haired breeds. Because of this, a daily health check and grooming session are mandatory, as outlined in the Army Regulation that governs Military Working Dogs. The Army has a Regulation for everything.
The health check includes checking the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body, extremities, and genitalia for anything out of the ordinary. This check is performed every day so the handler will notice the smallest of problems at the earliest of onset, keeping the pooch in tip top working condition. You will notice that the list of inspectable items includes some very up-close-and-personal locations on the dog. Grooming also puts you in close proximity to the business end of your brand new friend (with teeth).
Sly and I navigate through the neighborhood in which our duplex is located with the truck rocking back and forth to the rhythm of a spinning dog. Of course there would be cars parked along both sides of the road all the way to the house. That’s right, not even parked cars were safe. I tried stopping; she just barked at Sly instead of the traffic, and I was afraid he was about to do something drastic. I tried yelling “FOEI! (pronounced fooie)” which means bad dog, to no avail. Brake checks just bounced her around, giving a few seconds of respite, until she caught on and planted her feet against the kennel walls. We decided it was best to just get home. We backed into the driveway, where our roommate was standing with his dog Chatsi, and began the game of musical kennels.
When an experienced handler, with all the cool guy moves, gets a dog and their crate out of a vehicle, it is a simple affair. They open the kennel, apply leash to dog, ask dog to come out of the kennel and sit someplace out of the way (which of course it does), close the kennel door and remove the kennel from the vehicle. They then walk with the kennel in one hand and the dog in the other to wherever they need to go, including Starbucks if so inclined. None of us were that guy. Somebody came up with a plan, and I’m sure it was a good one, but I couldn’t really comprehend anything through the bark – spin party going on in the back seat, so I chased down 3 Advil with a Red Bull and got out of the truck with a sigh.
The first thing I did was get Fama out of the kennel, without getting bit (YAY) and take her to the back yard to do her business. I was so relieved the trip was over I just had to take a minute and relax. Fama relieves herself in several locations, dragging me along behind her like a parachute behind John Force. I didn’t even care at this point, until a neighbor dog, 27 pound mixed breed, decided we were on his turf and that it was his job to run us off. Fama immediately had other plans. I reflexively grabbed her collar and started moving away from the neighborhood watchdog, and towards the front of the house. This dog, which is loose, just keeps coming. Fama was going nuts trying to get to this dog. I’m just happy her focus was on the other dog and not my arm which was definitely in chomping range. We changed roles, Fama is the chute and I am John Force, and we made it back to the front of the house without the little dog.
Now we had 3 dogs out, 3 kennels in trucks, and a closed garage door. Scott, who is ever prepared for anything, produced a stake out chain, from where I will never know, hooked Chatsi to the porch post, ran through the house and opened the garage door. He then grabbed his kennel and put it inside the garage, into which Sly put his dog, Argo. Sly retrieved his own kennel from the truck, into which I placed Fama. I then put Fama’s kennel in there and Scott put Chatsi away. We looked like a NASCAR pit crew! We all looked at each other like we just solved the riddle of the Sphinx. The realization of our stupidity slowly sank across our faces as we pieced the sequence of events back together in our heads. Without saying a word, we all got our dogs out into the front yard and then paraded them back into the right kennels (elapsed time 3 weeks).
Scott and Sly decided to change into some comfy clothes, so I thought I would take advantage of the alone time in the garage and groom Fama. I got out the rake, and my personal favorite brush, and walked over to her kennel, knelt down and looked through the door. We spent several minutes looking at each other. Neither one of us made a sound. It was like we were feeling each other out. We weren’t at the kennels anymore, we weren’t working, we were just sharing the same space. We were figuring out that we had to live with each other, and that we had better make the best of things. I reached out, turned the kennel latch and opened the door.
I wasn’t anxious or concerned, nor did I have any expectation of what was going to happen. It was like someone let the tension, my tension, out of the room. Fama came out, gave a big stretch, and kissed me right in the face. I reached up with my bandaged hand and stroked her head. We spent about an hour out there grooming each other, taking turns. I would brush, she would sniff and give an occasional lick. I checked her teeth, and she let me. I dug some goop out of her ears and checked her feet and tail. When we were done, she put her front feet on my shoulders as I was kneeling in front of her, let her legs slide behind me, and buried my face in her broad chest. This has since become known as a Fama hug, my favorite form of doggy affection.
I hardly slept that night. Visions of clearing villages with Delta Force danced behind my sleepless eyes. I practiced in my mind, over and over again, trying to see where I could be more efficient so I could keep up with Fama. I replayed the conversations with my trainers over and over, trying to make sense of it all in my fledgling detection mind. Everything was so different than anything I had ever tried to do with a dog before. Allowing the dog to drive the working relationship was alien to me.
There is a mantra in the detection dog community; Trust Your Dog. Humans have a tendency to over-think situations. Subconsciously, we believe that we can find the bomb with our minds. This is how we problem solve from birth. Humans analyze the problem and think their way to the solution. We feel we are superior to the dog in mental capacity, so naturally we try and beat them to the bomb, forming a mental picture. The problem comes when you try and fit the dog to this picture. If you are sure that the bomb is in location A, you won’t see the dog respond to the bomb in location B, and you might pull the dog off odor; not good in training, but disastrous in the real world.
I understood this from the start. After seeing Fama that first day, and just how proficient she was at her job, I knew it would be arrogant of me to think I could outperform her. This realization helped us grow together as a team because I didn’t try and push her around when she was working. The whole struggle to becoming a good dog team was on my plate, and it was the most difficult thing I had done in the Army to date. The most natural thing in the world is a dog searching for something with it’s nose, and then finding it. When dogs hunted for food, this was the most necessary of skills. So how do I keep up?
The musical kennels routine loading the dogs up was much more efficient than the night before (elapsed time 19 minutes). Look, it was early and we were tired OK. Fama actually seemed; I wouldn’t say happy to see me, but like she wanted to kill me less. She still barked at me through the kennel door, but she didn’t bite it once. I figured it was a sign from the gods. The trip to the kennels from our apartment was much the same as our trip home the evening prior. The banshee was in full force, and she had a full night’s rest driving the torrent of doggy expletives. Sly had resolved to hunkering down in the front seat with his eyes closed and praying for Fama to have an aneurysm. The good news was there was no blood on my face yet, and it was already 6:45 in the morning!
The first order of business was the “Shit Run.” All 20 dog teams line up with muzzles on and go for a run. This is first thing in the morning, and I know what I do first thing every morning, hence the name. There were dogs and handlers everywhere. Fama and I were doing our tractor pull routine towards the back of the pack, because I’m an old guy and don’t run very fast, and she was not happy about that at all. Some dogs wanted to sprint up front, some dogs were fighting with their muzzles, some dogs barely made it out of the parking lot before popping a squat. All of them took a dump at one point or another along the mile and a half route. It is the responsibility of the handler to always pick up after his dog, so you have 19 guys running along with bags of poop in one hand, and a crazy dog in the other. I say 19 because 1 of the guys puts the bag in his pocket. That didn’t really work out so well for him. Nobody stood downwind of him the rest of the day.
Training moved out of the barn to a location down the road that was a big building with a bunch of rooms built inside it. The rooms were full of old furniture and appliances, and they had adjoining doors so you could make a big loop through the training complex and come back out the door you had entered. The best thing was that we got to observe the other dog teams as they worked so we could learn form their mistakes. A couple of the guys got out their cameras and shot video of the teams as they worked their way through the building. I still have these videos, and periodically watch them if I’m tired of Family Guy and need a good laugh. I looked like Rocky Balboa trying to catch that chicken for Mick. Fama made me look less than horrible, and Gary (you guessed it, another biker guy with a cute oggie-boogie voice), had a few hard earned words of praise for me. I was on cloud 9, and took Fama outside to celebrate and was shaking her head between my two hands. She bit me. I guess I pushed the excitement a little too far. Back in the crate you go, bitch.
The comic relief portion of day 2 was human leash drills. This is how you practice handling a dog without screwing the dog up. You take your buddy and force him to put a leash around his shoulders, yes you have to force him at first because he knows how ridiculous this is going to look, and then hook your leash to his, right at his butt crack. Then the “dog” runs around searching while you attempt to look like a super cool dog guy, directing your “dog” to search, switching hands with the leash, keeping shoulders square to the search pattern, keeping a gentle arc in the leash without letting it get underfoot. It’s tougher than it sounds! So there we are, a bunch of soldiers, in uniform, bent over at the waist with knees bent, sniffing and snorting, trying our best to mimic the erratic movement of a dog while searching. When we found the “bomb”, we would sit on our heels with our butts wiggling like we were wagging our tails, and wait for the ball to hit us in the head. I’m just glad no one got me on video. That is blackmail material right there.
Sly and I decided to run through the Golden Arches for lunch, as it is just down the road from the kennels. The trip there was a now familiar scene with Fama singing back-up and dancing in her crate to the radio. I don’t even know why we had it on at this point, but the good news is I was actually getting used to it. Maybe I’m just blocking out the hatred and violence I was feeling. Only my shrink could tell you. We got to the drive-thru, which was off the road a bit, and behind the building, and Fama quieted down. It was strange, like when you are on the dance floor in a loud bar and the DJ screws up, leaving the air full of silence. Sly and I looked at each other and shrugged. We were beyond surprise at this point.
We placed our order at the talking sign and pulled up to the window. One of the McWorkers must have spotted the dogs through the first drive-up window (why don’t they ever use that one anyways?) and thought they would be friendly and stick an arm right out the second window, just as we stopped, with a dog biscuit clenched in their McFist. I fail to see the logic, as the dogs are both in kennels, but hey, it was a nice gesture. The arm went right in my window, past my head, and into the back seat. Time stopped right here, as my brain searched the universe for the most likely outcome, discarded several courses of action, and waited to see what would happen. The liter of cola that started in the McWorker’s other hand ended up on the hood of my truck. Nice toss.
We were told by our instructors that after lunch, we were going to learn how to search vehicles, so while polishing off my Number 2 Combo (medium, with a Coke), I was practicing in my head. I was envisioning how to work Fama around a car in the most efficient way while staying out of her way. We have already established that she searches fast, and a geometry problem forms in my head. A car, simplified, is a rectangle. Her search path is going to be just outside that rectangle, and my handler path is going to be outside her search path. I can’t keep up with her when I’m on the inside of a room and have the mathematical advantage, meaning that she travels further than I do. How am I supposed to keep up when she has the advantage? I couldn’t see it happening. Not this old guy.
We returned to the kennels with the windows down so Fama could announce our arrival like Harry (and the Hendersons). We had also discovered that if the windows were down, the sound pressure level inside the vehicle dropped from “Ozzy” to “Garth”. We parked and joined the rest of the group doing human leash drills.
Responding to a “Hoodie Hoo” from Heath, all the handlers gathered around the vehicles in the search area, and opened our little dog handler sponge minds for the block of instruction. Gary and Luchian (the only instructor I haven’t seen on a Harley, but he drives an H2 Hummer like he stole it; touche) briefly explained how to search a car with a dog. Like most things in the dog world, it seems really simple. You start at a corner and work your way around. They didn’t really address the math problem I had in my head concerning the length of my path of travel versus that of my dog, but that’s because neither of them is a nerd. I was picked to be the first victim, so I retrieved Fama from the truck and started my search, realizing quickly why I couldn’t arrive at a solution to my problem using geometry. It’s chaos math all day baby.
We start at the front of the car, and Fama quickly reaches the 90 degree corner present at the headlight of all domestic vehicles, executes a hard left, and leaves me in the dust. She continues the turn-and-squirt pattern around the car. I try to run to catch up and Luchian yells at me to stop running.
“Don’t chase your dog!”
OK, so I slow down.
“Keep a loose leash! Face the car! Shoulders parallel to the search!”
I try and do everything at once and end up looking like The Scarecrow trying to Riverdance.
My brain is trying to process all these instructions while paying attention to my dog, when I can actually see her, doing the karaoke sidestep, untangling the leash from my left hand and trying to get the loop over my right thumb (because that’s where it’s supposed to be damn it) when Fama sits in response to odor, beautifully. I almost ran over her. Then I have to remember how to react properly when she responds; loose leash, turn 90 degrees while getting your ball out, give the STAY command, pay the dog. The only thing I performed correctly was to say “STAY” before I threw the ball. It was a train wreck.
Luchian said, “Not bad.”
I just giggled.
We moved on to the next four vehicles, improving microscopically, but having a really good time. Fama was electric, moving with purpose and grace. Before each vehicle, I would ask her to sit on my left, prepare myself for the search, and give her the search command. While sitting at my side, patiently awaiting the command, Fama would look me right in the eyes, asking permission to go to work. She was so intense, like a drawn arrow, perfectly still, eyes bright and full of desire. I learned to cherish this moment we share before every search. It’s when we need each other the most.
I watched the rest of the handlers work their dogs, making mistakes faster than carbon dioxide, and I learned. You start the search ahead of the dog, by using body position. To get ahead of the dog, you turn her around towards the area of the car you already searched, while you continue in the direction you are still going, switching leash hands as you pass her, and then continue the search. You put the ball in your pocket “just so”, making it less of a wrestling match and more of a natural thing to retrieve it smoothly. The trainers, true masters of their craft, continually encouraged us while offering a steady stream of direction, and it was never regurgitated dialog. They were always locked on; present in the moment. It was obvious that they loved it. Even after teaching the same material for years, they were still engaged with the task, and most of all, the dogs.
The diversity in the group of dogs was astounding. German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are a given in the working dog world, but there were a vast array of breeds. Labs, Pits, Dutch Shepherds, even a Labradoodle. They ranged from 35 pounds to 90. They differed in personality from Fama, the asshole, to Midnight the goofy Lab, and everything in between. The one thing they shared was drive. They would all crawl a mile through broken glass to get that ball. It is truly amazing to see a super high drive dog in action, especially when that drive is given direction. It makes me wonder why man would try and replace a dog with a machine? It is incredibly vain to believe we could ever replace this purpose driven animal with some electronics.
That evening we returned to the house, tired, confused, and happy, because we sucked. The magic kennel drill went much smoother (elapsed time 9 minutes). I actually attempted the “dog in one hand, kennel in the other” technique. I failed, but it was a good sign that I was even willing to try. Chatsi, a cute-as-a-button spaz Malinois belonging to Scott, was jumping in and out of the kennel while it was still in the back of the truck, grabbing everything she could get her mouth on in the process. She pretty much emptied the back of the truck onto the road in front of the house while Scott tried to get control of her. We fed the dogs and got some dinner. We did human leash drills for dessert, with a side of intense discussion about the day, and dogs in general. We were hooked.
Before bed, I put Fama in her kennel in the back of the truck and just sat out in the driveway with her, reading a book. We sat out there for two hours, just being in the same place. She was on high alert at first, reacting to every little sound or flash of movement in the night with a bark, or at the very least intense scrutiny, but she soon settled down. I listened for her breathing to change to that slow, deep rhythm of rest, and read to her in a soothing voice. Several times I thought she had fallen asleep, but when I stopped reading, she would lift her head and look at me through the vent in the crate, seeming to wonder why I had stopped.
When I went to bed that night, I couldn’t remember anything I read in the back of that truck. The words were a means to an end, not a story. When soldiers experience stress together, they form a bond that is different than anything existing outside of extreme conditions. It is rare in our society for one person to place their life squarely in the hands of another out of necessity. In the Army, we call this person a battle buddy. Somebody that you have shared things with that no one else will understand. You are frightened, angry, excited, in danger together, and because you are together in this, you have strength. Just like the man who surely would have drowned had his faithful dog not pulled him from the lake by his shirt, I was going to owe my life to Fama. That story makes headlines all over the nation because it is extraordinary. Fama and I were going to experience this every day. How lucky am I, I have a battle buddy.
The handlers were getting fatigued from the weather, the new environment, from the constant physical challenge placed on our bodies to do something unfamiliar. Our brains were jello from the constant barrage of information. This was apparent at the line-up for the shit run that next morning. The drawn faces, lack of persistent vulgar banter, tempers easily flaring, everything pointed to soldiers in training. The instructors pushed us as hard as they could because we had a mountain of techniques to master, and a short timeline in which to accomplish this.
We ran with our dogs, stretched out along the right side of the road in front of the kennels, down to a turn around point, where we (you guessed it) turned around and came back to the start point along the opposite side of the road. This created a situation where dogs were passing face to face while running. Some of the more reactive dogs were barking and lunging in passing, creating a situation where we had to apply leash pops to keep the dogs moving in the right direction and focused on the task at hand instead of all the other dogs. Fama was doing very well on the run, trotting along at my side instead of pulling as she had on the previous day, until her buddy Chatsi came along.
Fama exploded towards Chatsi without any warning. I gave her a good pop on the leash while saying “Foei,” and she turned right around and lunged at me, her teeth snapping just short of my arm, and then ran on as if nothing happened. I finished the run in deep thought, with emotions ranging from anger to confusion. This behavior could not be allowed. I had to work through this with my dog, and I had some ideas on what needed to happen, but I thought it best to bounce it off a trainer first and see what course of action they suggested.
After the run, I gave Fama’s feet a quick inspection, got her some water, and put her up in her kennel. I immediately went to find Heath to discuss the situation, as he had previous experience with Fama and could possibly share some insight on the subject. I found him up by the office having a smoke break.
“Hey Heath, you got a second?”
“Sure buddy. What’s up?”
I hesitated here for a second, wondering what the outcome of the situation might be. Although we had some issues to work through, I definitely didn’t want to have Fama taken away from me in lieu of another dog. I told the truth, figuring Heath would understand that I wanted to address the issues, not trade out dogs.
“Fama has bit me a couple of times, and she lunged at me earlier on the run when I gave her a small correction.”
Heath smiled. “That bitch. You just can’t let her win, ever, and you will be just fine. You have to be ready to take the fight deeper than she will. It won’t take her long to learn who is boss.” He added a final admonition, “Now don’t injure her. You can’t go kicking the crap out of Fama. Can you handle this?”
“I got it Heath. That’s exactly what I was thinking, I just wanted to clear it with you before it went down. Thanks brother.”
Now I had the tools, the desire, and the permission to handle the “Big Bad Bitch.” I just had to wait for the opportunity to present itself, and I didn’t think I would have to wait too long.
The first training venue of the day was a short road clear along the lane beside the pond at the kennels. This was the first time we had worked our dogs outside and we were excited to see what it was like. The first dog team came up to the lane and got ready to go, with their 30 foot leash hooked to the harness on the dog’s back. The handler, Sean, sat the dog , Fil, next to him and listened to Gary give a brief description of how the search was generally supposed to go. Sean raised his hand and gave the search command. Fil lept to the task, quickly scampering out ahead of Sean, working left and right, searching for odor, occasionally circling back behind Sean to recheck something. In less than 15 seconds, both Fil and Sean were tied in knots that a boatswain’s mate would be proud of. It went from a bomb search to an inter-species game of twister with a leash thrown in for fun. Sean was hopping and twisting, trying to get untangled while Fil continued to trot this way and that, cinching the triple half-hitch deeper at every opportunity. Gary finally called a time out and grabbed Fil by the harness, giving Sean the time necessary to free himself from Charlotte’s Web.
Fama and I didn’t fair any better. It was strongly suggested that we wear gloves while working on a long line, which is handler speak for the 30 footer. I had the impression that gloves were for wimps, so I headed up to the training problem with nothing but a smile and Fama, on her long line. Gary returned my smile, and nodded in permission for us to begin. I gave Fama the search command and she took off like Wile E Cyote getting launched from a slingshot. Luckily I still had a bandage on my hand, so I only got blisters on 3 fingers. About 30 yeards down the road, she circled back behind me and then headed back out. The resulting loop in the leash, around both my feet, combined with the pull on my upper body from Fama, resulted in the most beautifully choreographed, slow motion face plant. I hit the ground with a thud, and Fama came back to see what was holding up progress. She was just staring at me. I could read “douche bag” in her doggie eyes. The whole group, trainers included, burst in laughter. I couldn’t even help from laughing. I noticed when we were finished that several video cameras had appeared in the crowd of observers, hoping to catch the next one for the archives.
After we all completed the road clear, it was time for lunch. We decided to head to the local Chinese restaurant for some grub, and the group of SUVs headed out of the parking lot, jockeying for position in the buffet line. The truck was bouncing around the parking lot again, with Fama in full form, excited by all the passing vehicles. I decided I would get her out and give her a break before we left in hopes that she would settle down before the car ride into town. I was running out of Advil. I reached her kennel and opened the door to let her out, and she lunged right at me. I got a hand on her collar to get some control, but the fight was on.
We went down to the ground, with both of us fighting for the best position. She bit me once on the arm, but it was just a small bite with her front teeth, and I quickly got my arm back. I rolled over on top of her, maintaining a death grip on her collar, and straddled her body with my knees. This took the fight to an entirely different level. She was just testing me before, but now she was pissed. Her teeth were snapping as she was lunging off her back, trying to get to my face. My ground fighting training took over, and I dropped a big elbow along the left side of her head. I got another small bite out of it as I was pulling back, but I really didn’t care. Heath said win, and I was going to win, whatever the cost. She then grabbed my arm that was next to her face, the one holding her collar, which gave me the opportunity to land another elbow. This one landed with a solid THUNK, and Fama decided she had enough. She started to struggle to get away instead of struggle to bite me. I immediately eased up on her and allowed her roll over onto her belly, and began gently petting the back of her neck, praising her gently in a soft voice. After we both settled down, we were visibly shaking from the adrenalin, I let her up and she came right over and kissed me on the face, with her ears back and tail wagging. Her eyes were softer than before. She was apologizing and showing submission to me, acknowledging me as the boss. I had won a hard fought battle, without beating my dog. We were finally a team. I got a big Fama hug before heading off to lunch. It was a good one.
After the 24 of us completely abused the local Chinese Buffet, we returned to the kennels to run another training venue. It was time for us to attempt our first open area searches, and the weather was cooperating, it had warmed up to a balmy 45 degrees and there was no rain. We headed over to a training field and began the afternoon suck-fest.
It was immediately apparent that we had quite a ways to go in the leash control department. Dogs were getting tangled up every 30 seconds or so, handlers were stepping on the leash and getting tied up every time the dog circled behind them. The instructors were always there to lend a guiding hand and poke fun. The atmosphere was always light and jovial. Most of all, we were having fun with our dogs, doing what they enjoyed the most. Finding bombs.
I headed over to Heath with Fama on the long line, and gloves on my blistered hands, to receive my block of instruction. Heath, being familiar with Fama, suggested that I run her off leash.
He said, “She knows what she’s doing. Unhook her and put her to work.”
So I bent over, unhooked the leash from her harness, stuffed it in a cargo pocket, and gave her the search command. Most of the dogs were making 3 to 4 passes in a grid pattern, getting consecutively closer to the hide until they detected odor. Fama took about 4 steps out in front of me, executed a hard left turn, and snapped her head around, raising her nose to test the wind. She had smelled the hide, and her whole demeanor changed. She was excited and very focused. It was such a beautiful thing to watch her bracket, a term we use to describe the dog working closer to the source of the odor, bouncing from edge to edge of the scent cone as the wind blows it from the hide. She worked her way in a zig-zag pattern all the way to the hide, where she sat, her nose pointed directly at the hide. The only thing moving was her tail, thrashing the long grass behind her. It was so far away, I couldn’t even throw her ball to her, so I walked up to a distance I thought was in range and chucked her ball. It was 10 feet short, and the wind carried it off to the right. She didn’t care one bit. She took a big victory lap with her ball in her mouth and came back for some lovin’ from daddy.
I was so incredibly proud, and impressed. I couldn’t stop laughing. She made it look so easy when the other dogs were struggling. We went to the next open area, with Luchian, and the result was the same. I elected to try it on the 30′ leash this time, and I did pretty well. Fama had more of tendancy to stay out in front of me, allowing me to keep a little tension on the leash so it stayed out from under her feet. She circled around behind me once, but I anticipated it and stepped over the leash this time, avoiding the double Windsor. Again, she responded beautifully to the hide, and I was sure to walk closer before throwing the ball. I got it right to her, and we had a big party. Luchian just nodded, said, “Hey, that looked great,” and walked away.
I finally felt like a dog handler. I came to the conclusion that it was all going to be worth it. Dealing with the barking, spinning, biting, and attitude was just the price to pay for such a great bomb dog. The same things that made her a pain in the ass to live with, made her great at her job. The intensity she displayed towards life, applied in a working environment, was the recipe for success. All I had to do was figure out how to live with her, and everything would be fine.
I started immediately by establishing the rules. Fama, you will sit before going in your crate. You will lay down and be calm before you can come out. You will sit and wait for your food. You will look to me for everything in life, because everything in life comes from me. We did obedience after school every day. We trained on the obstacle course at lunch and before going home at night. I took her everywhere with me in the car. We took long walks around the pond at the kennels, occasionally throwing in obedience commands, but more importantly, learning to operate together with me in charge.
It had an immediate effect on our relationship. I was no longer a challenge to be dealt with, but a trusted leader to be followed. She relaxed around me, and began coming to me without being called. She wanted to be around me. Our evenings in the back of the truck continued, but without the crate. She would lay there with her body against my leg and relax, sometimes sleeping, while I read a book, or worked on my K9 records. I would talk to my wife on the phone and she would listen, giving that cute head twist that dogs do when I would laugh.
Training was more challenging by the day, but she was always up to the task and regularly outperformed the other dogs in class. She started healing by my side during the shit runs in the morning, unless she had to pinch a loaf. We spent our days off roaming through the woods on trails or walking around town. We would train on off leash obedience in a fenced off baseball field that was close to where we lived, always having fun with lots of praise and toys thrown about.
We were evaluated weekly by our instructors, and that always went very well. Both Fama and I worked very hard at our job, and it was really paying off. She was less reactive in the truck and with other dogs. I was becoming much more proficient at being a handler, meaning that I almost never fell down anymore. I paid close attention to everything the instructors had to say, to me as well as to everyone else, and I felt confident that we were going to be a great team if we just kept up the hard work. The month in Indiana went buy very quickly, and it was time to go to Arizona and begin our desert training.
It is always exciting when you move on to the next step in any training, and the trip to Arizona was no exception. The kennel staff brought a truck and trailer to haul the dogs, and all our gear, to Grissom Air Reserve Base, so we could load up on our very own C17 and make the flight to Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. I was immediately reserved about putting Fama in the back of a trailer with 19 other dogs. She was still very crate reactive when daddy wasn’t around, but we really didn’t have any choice in the matter, so I loaded her up and prayed for the best. We made the trip to Grissom in about 40 minutes, which was more than enough time for Fama to get into trouble.
I was overseeing the retrieval of our weapons from the arms room when I heard my name. I looked towards the flight line and could see several people waving me over so I ran. I could hardly believe my eyes when I got there. Fama had popped her tail open inside her crate again, but much worse than before. There was a solid pool of blood in the bottom of her kennel, and she was obviously not happy at all. Joey, an Army SF dog handler, had her on a leash off to the side of the crowd. He was trying to calm her down, but she wasn’t having any of it. There was blood all over her legs and belly, and every time her tail wagged, she would fling a stream of blood through the air. It looked like a murder scene. There must have been 10 people with blood on their clothes and uniforms. I felt terrible.
I immediately went to her and gave her a good once over. Thankfully, the only injury she sustained was to her tail, and it didn’t seem to be bothering her at all. She was pretty stressed at first, but quickly calmed down once I got there. The other handlers and trainers were great. They broke down her kennel and washed it out. Heath found some gauze and vet wrap and we did a quick bandage job on her.
I took her away from the crowd, around a corner, and just sat down with her. I was shocked at how emotional I had become when I saw that she was hurt. I am no stranger to injury, on myself as well as others, but this was like one of my kids getting hurt. I could feel it in my guts, the regret at not doing something more to keep her safe, the wish that it was me that was injured instead of her. I took it much worse than she did.
I was relieved to find out the trainers were adamant with the crew aboard the aircraft that Fama and I be placed together. They explained in graphic detail what the inside of their C17 was going to look like if the dog was left without her handler, and they grudgingly made the necessary arrangements for her kennel to be placed directly in front of my seat. The flight went smoothly. I stretched out on the floor right in front of the kennel and we slept our way to Arizona. Aside from her going nuts when they strapped, and then unstrapped, her kennel, Fama was quiet for the whole flight.
Upon landing an Arizona, we had to load the dogs up in their crates, on the back of a big flat bed truck, and transport them to the hotel where we stayed for the duration of our training at YPG (Yuma Proving Grounds). I knew this was going to be trouble, but there was nothing I could do. We had to get to the hotel, and this was our only means of transport. The trip to the hotel seemed like it took forever. I could hear Fama barking the whole way, and I had a good idea of what was transpiring in that crate. We got to the hotel and downloaded the dogs and, sure enough, there was blood everywhere again. Heath helped me get her up into our hotel room and quieted down. I put a sheet (sorry Best Western) over her crate and headed to the local pharmacy for some medical supplies. Heath and I got her all bandaged up again, and he assured me that she would be fine, and that we would see the vet tomorrow and get her taken care of properly. I spent the next 3 hours cleaning blood off every vertical surface in the hotel room.
I made the decision that night that no one was going to tell me what to do with my dog. She was solely my responsibility, and if I would have refused to put her in a situation where she could injure herself, they would have had to accommodate our needs somehow. She could have rode up in the bus with me, on my lap if necessary. I could have done something to protect my dog, and I had failed her. I made a promise to her that night that I would never let anything like that happen again, no matter the cost. I should have rented a car, called a taxi, shit, I should have walked the 30 miles before allowing my dog to injure herself. Don’t tell Heath, but I let her sleep up in bed with me that night.
The following morning we loaded up in our rented SUVs and headed to K9 Village, located about 30 minutes outside of Yuma. 3 handlers had been dropped from the course in Indiana, so we had an odd number of dog teams. I took the solitary vehicle, and no one seemed bothered by it at all. Sly was down right ecstatic. The ride was blessedly quiet. We had slowly worked through Fama reacting to traffic, and she was snoozing in the back for the whole trip. We arrived at K9 village, got the low down on where everything was located, and got the dogs put up in their kennels, except for Fama. She was staying with me.
We headed over to the Vet’s office to get her tail checked out. I put her muzzle on and headed in the front door, checking in with the staff and getting her weight on the way. It was only a few minutes before the Vet came out to see what was going on with Fama. I explained the situation, and also explained that she was Vet aggressive.
“Oh, she will be just fine. Bring her on in and we will get started. She looks nice to me,” said the Vet.
The sarcasm of the situation struck me as comical. Here was a handler, who has worked with his dog everyday for a month, and this Vet, who has seen Fama for a total of 12 seconds, knows more of the dog’s temperament than her handler. We headed into the exam room on a very short leash, and took a position in the corner, with me in between the Vet and Fama.
“She will be just fine Sergeant, just let her come over and say hello.”
Fama has THAT look on her face, the one that says it’s dinner time, and your ass is on the menu. I said, “Look Ma’am, I know my dog, and she is going to go after you if I don’t have a hold of her.”
The vet launches into and explanation on how restraint builds frustration, and if we would just relax, Fama would be fine. I giggled. The vet continued to encourage Fama to come see her.
“Ma’am, I know my dog, and it would be best if you just let me restrain her, and then do what you have to do.”
“Sergeant, I have been a Veterinarian for 4 years and have yet to meet a dog that I couldn’t get along with. You bring her over here right now.”
I let Fama have some slack on the leash so she could move a little closer. She had death written on her face. I don’t know how the Vet could just blindly walk into her like that. The Vet bends down right over Fama’s head to scratch under her chin. Bad idea. Without audible warning, Fama launched herself at warp speed right into the chest of the vet. The sound of her muzzle hitting the Vet was like somebody hit a heavy bag with a golf club. The Vet gave a loud grunt / shriek / expletive, and I think she shit her pants too, and landed flat on her back with Fama trying desperately to get to her. I’m glad I was quick on the leash, or the Vet may have been seriously injured. As it was, only her pride was hurt. Now that Fama was restrained, and couldn’t get to the Vet, she was barking up a storm right in the face of the Vet. There was terror in the eyes of that poor woman. I giggled again. The Vet excused herself from the room, presumably to change underwear, and count her teeth.
After about 10 minutes, the Vet came back in the room, after knocking and announcing that she was about to enter. She opened the door and peeked inside. I could see fight or flight written all over her face. I reassured her that it was safe to come in.
The Vet said, “Sorry about that. I really should have listened, and that is the last time I will ignore the advice of a handler when it comes to the attitude of their dog.”
“Good idea. Now, I’ll restrain her and you can get a good look at her tail and decide what we should do.”
“Sounds good,” she said.
They ended up shaving her tail and bandaging it. There was plenty of growling and thrashing about, but no one was worse for wear at the end of the appointment. When the Vet was done with Fama, I reached down and unhooked her muzzle to let her get some air and play a little ball. I didn’t see a Vet or even a technician for the rest of the time there, not even on the way out. I think Scotty beamed them out of the building.
We headed back to K9 village to meet up with the rest of the guys, and ran into Eddie, who was our lead instructor. I told him about what happened at the Vet’s office and we had a good laugh. He suggested that Fama stay with me at the hotel instead of at the kennels with the rest of the dogs. That was just fine by me. I would rather have had her with me anyways. We finished up the administrative tasks that always accompany any military movement, and then headed for the hotel.
Shortly after we arrived at the hotel room, successfully executing the cool dog handler guy kennel-in-one-hand, dog-in-the-other maneuver up stairs to the room, Heath stopped by to check on us. He let me know that under no circumstances was Fama to be loose in the room. She was to stay in her crate unless I was taking her out to break her. Of course I agreed, and then let her out of the kennel right after he left for a wrestling match on the bed. She spent every night sleeping with her head on my leg. Don’t tell Heath.
Our training started the next morning with, what else, the shit run, except now we are in the dessert, and the temperature is about 50 degrees warmer than Indiana. Nobody had any fun at all that morning, dog or man alike. We finished up the run, covered in sweat and sand, and headed off to our first training event at K9 village. All the handlers were a little anxious at how their dogs were going to perform in the new environment, as dogs need an adjustment period just like us humans. I was especially nervous after watching several dog teams, that normally performed very well, have a really bad day. when it was our turn to go, I got Fama all harnessed up and headed to the venue, feeling the anxiety build as we walked up to Mark, a former Air Force dog handler with a quick wit and ready smile. She had plenty of pep in her step, and seemed to be all ready to go, unlike some of the other dogs.
“Do your thing Chief,” was all he said, so I put her to work. She rocketed down the road in a nice zig-zag search pattern and indicated on the first hide almost immediately. It was like somebody let the air back into my lungs. We were going to be just fine. Mark, who had never seen us work before, was definitely impressed. We finished out the rest of the training problem, and received a critique of our run from him as we walked back to the start point.
“She’s a helluva dog there Sergeant Winners. You guys looked great.”
I was smiling from ear to ear while I struggled for 2 minutes to get her ball away from her; we still had some work to do, I’ll admit. She was in fine form, and seemingly picked up right where we left off in Indiana. This was a huge relief, because in 3 short weeks, we had to certify as a dog team before we could deploy to Afghanistan. This certification was to be 4 days of testing, administered by Army Working Dog personnel that we didn’t know. We were all a little freaked out about the whole process, and it felt good to see Fama on top of her game.
After a short lunch break, it was time to run the obstacle course, which made the one in Indiana look like a hamster cage. The short jumps were 4 feet tall, and the tall ones we almost 6 feet. There was a huge A-frame, easily 10 feet tall, and a series of steps up to platforms that were crazy steep, and 10 feet to the top. It was all just a little huge. I was pretty confident when I stepped up to the line with my dog. Fama was a straight stud on the OB course in Indiana, as we practiced there almost daily. I got her wound up with my voice and some slaps to her chest. She knew what was coming and was excited to go.
We took off for the first 4 foot jump, and I gave the up command, waiting for Fama to gracefully sail over the jump as she always had. She had a different idea. She juked around the near side of the jump, not caring that my legs used to be in that same exact location. I was in full kit, wearing body armor and my helmet, and I hit the sandy ground head first, and immediately stopped. There was no Jackie Chan combat roll back up to my feet. Not even a slide into home plate. I hit the ground like a Volvo hitting the barrier in those crash test commercials. I couldn’t breathe. Hell, I couldn’t even think about not being able to breathe.
A couple of the handlers came over and helped me to my wobbly feet. I took Fama’s leash from one of them, gritted my teeth against the will to strangle her, and headed for the sidelines. We paused for a short commercial break, chased down a couple of Advil with a bottle of water, and then headed back out to get back on that horse. I noticed the video cameras had mysteriously appeared and were rolling, waiting for a repeat performance. This time I approached with some caution, guiding her over the jump with the handle on the back of her harness. After the first couple of jumps were under her belt, she had the confidence to charge them properly and get some air. We sailed through the course together, even jumping the 6 foot jumps with confidence, having a ball and wearing my old ass out. We had completed day 1 at YPG with little more than a few scratches, a sore shoulder, and a headache. I considered it a resounding success.
After we got home that evening, I put on some gym shorts and headed out with Fama for a run. The hotel is located adjacent to a shopping center, and the parking area is a maze of drives and parking lots. We wandered through the complex of buildings and parked cars, sometimes running, sometimes walking, and sometimes just hanging out at a vacant bench or table outside of a restaurant. I never issued a command or expected anything of Fama, other than to just be a dog. I would respectfully reject requests from passers by to pet my dog, saying that she didn’t play well with others. It was refreshing to just run together, with no particular place to go, and no objective except to have fun.
We walked through a drive-thru and picked up some dinner for me. The DelWorkers were crowding the window as we strolled up to pay. One of them stuck a hand out towards Fama, and retracted it immediately when she lunged. They had a good laugh at this. They may have been making fun of us. I couldn’t tell. I don’t speak Spanish. They were very friendly, and seemed honest when they hoped to see us again soon. My love for tacos made that a certainty.
On our way back to our second floor room, how inconvenient for someone that has to carry a crate to and from the truck every day, we were headed up the stairs when we ran into someone at the top of the stairs. Fama was ahead of me going up the steps, so when I saw a person up on the balcony, I turned her around and headed back down to avoid a potentially ugly situation. It turned out to be the Sergeant Major in charge of all the Military Dog programs, who has over 20 years working Military Dogs. SGM quickly called us back up to speak with him, and to meet Fama.
“Just come on back up here Soldier,” he said. “How are things going for you?”
Fama was trying to go greet, or eat, the SGM, and I wasn’t sure which, because I was looking him in the eye while he spoke to me. She was pulling on the leash, and I was holding her back. Fama biting the SGM would have been just shy of biting the President. I didn’t think I was up to doing a billion push-ups, so my left hand was a vice on that leash.
“Things are just fine Sergeant Major,” I said, glancing down to see if I could get a read on how Fama was taking all this.
“You just let that dog come up here and say hi.”
I said, “Sergeant Major, she’s not very friendly sometimes.”
“I’ve been a dog handler for 23 years, and if I get bit, it’s my fault.”
I still had the incident at the Vet’s office fresh in my mind, but I decided he was right. If anybody could make friends with her, or defend himself if necessary, it was this man. I grudgingly let go of the leash, and noticed my knuckles hurt. Fama went right up the stairs and greeted him like they were long lost friends.
“What’s her name?” he asked.
“This is Fama, and I can’t believe how good she is being with you.”
She was wrestling around with him, play biting his hands and rubbing up against his legs like a cat. He then took the time to explain to me how not feeling fear or discomfort around a dog put it at ease with you, and that restraining her when meeting people was building frustration and drive, making her more reactive and likely to bite someone. It all made sense to me, and I had thought of this before. I just hadn’t worked out how to train through this, given our current situation.
I thanked the SGM for his time, and headed back to the room with my brain going a million miles an hour, trying to come up with a plan to help Fama become a social dog. The meeting with SGM had given me hope. I thought that if Fama could meet one person cordially, she could eventually meet all people with the same good manners. The problem was, a short-term quick fix was not going to happen. This behavior had gone on for a long time, and I was going to have to wait for the opportunity to spend some time working with her in just the right setting. For now, we had to work on finding bombs first. The rest could come later.
We had dinner, and a bath, followed by some fun obedience games with a tug. I had put all the unused furniture and my luggage up on the sofa so we had lots of room for activities. The downstairs neighbors had to be pulling their hair out. We were working on an UP command by jumping up on the bed, getting the tug, wrestling around with it for a few seconds, and then hopping back to the floor to do it all again. We knocked over a lamp or two, but that’s the price you pay. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some light bulbs. We settled down on the bed when Deadliest Catch came on TV. It’s Fama’s favorite show, along with Dirty Jobs. Maybe she has a thing for Mike Rowe? He does have a sexy voice.
All the handlers, including myself, had been bitching to the trainers about running every morning because it was hot as hell. The run kept getting longer too. This was understandable, as both the dogs and handlers needed to be in top physical condition in preparation for operating in the mountains of Afghanistan. Understandable? Yes. Fun? Not on your life. The trainers decided to take us swimming with our dogs, as it is great exercise, and the change of pace was welcome. I had memories of swimming with Gunner, my Chocolate Lab of 14 years (miss you buddy), and we always had such a great time in the water.
We showed up at the park, which was located on the river by Laguna Dam, and changed into our swimming apparel. We made our way down to the water, dogs in harnesses on their long lines. The idea was to play fetch into the water for a while to get the dogs used to swimming. We all lined up along the beach with some space between each dog team, and chucked our balls out into the water. Fama charged the water, took about 2 steps off the beach, and turned right around, coming back up onto the sand. She looked at me, eyes saying, “I hope you don’t think that I’m going in THERE after that ball, do you? Because that is NOT going to happen.”
I sacrificed that first ball to the river gods. I had put some arm into the throw, and didn’t feel like swimming all the way out there to get it. I took a second ball out, don’t ask where I had it stored, and got Fama all worked up with it, tossing it around and teasing her. I flipped it underhand into the water right at the edge. Fama raced to the edge, and then tip toed out one more step with just her front feet in the water, stretching her neck to reach the ball, and jumped straight backwards 6 feet until she was on dry land. It took me a good 3 minutes to get the ball back. I tried several more times to tempt her into the water with the ball, with no progress. I got in first and tried to call her to me. She would get excited and bark, whine, warble, and jump around, but she refused to get into the water. We were going to have to do this the hard way. I was glad I had a shirt on.
I took her by the harness and gave the SHOULDER command, at which time I put her up on my left shoulder and headed into the water. She was just fine up there, looking around, digging her nails into my skin to establish a more stable position. The water got up to my waist and touched her back feet, which were tucked into the back of my trunks. Feeling the water touch her paws, Fama tried to climb on top of my head. I felt like a beanstalk, with Jack’s sister Julie trying to climb me using her brand new Lee Press-On Nails for grip. She came around the front with her feet on my chest, trying to face the shore. I stopped her with my hand on her harness. Then she backed up a little and tried to go over my head. When I restrained her, she just pulled harder. I brought her off my shoulder and cradled her in my arms, bending at the knees to lower her gently into the water. I could feel the sting of the claw marks as I entered the water.
Here is my fearless Military Working Dog, ears back, sorrowfully whimpering, trying desperately to get back to the shore. Her feet were thrashing in the water against my stomach and legs. I could feel the scratches multiplying by the second, so I let her go. She sensed her chance to make a break for it and poured on the steam. I had her leash in my hand and I let her have about 10 feet of slack and stopped her forward progress. Now we’re swimming, not the way I had hoped it would go, but it would have to do for now. I floated a ball towards her head, and she snapped it up like an alligator, continuing to flail towards the shoreline in vain. I let her in to the beach to have a break and got my ball back.
We continued “swimming” for about an hour, with frequent breaks on the beach. I kept letting her have her ball once we got out into the water, and she started to lighten up after a few repetitions. She wouldn’t go into the water on her own accord, but the protests grew less and less over the course of the afternoon. After we were done swimming, I took Fama up to the parking lot and played some ball in the sun to help her dry off. Fama was not the only dog with swimming issues. Several of us stood in the parking lot comparing scratches. Tired and hungry, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and some sleep.
Training was becoming more scenario based as we progressed in proficiency as dog teams. The trainers were setting up complex problems that closely replicated what we were going to face when we deployed and started operating in the real world. On this particular day, we were working our way around to the back side of a village, locating and searching a tunnel that ran under the perimeter wall, and gaining entry to the village through the tunnel. Sounded like fun to me.
Fama and I had completed the route to the village and recon of the perimeter, locating the tunnel. It was a piece of corrugated plastic tile 3 foot in diameter coming out of a hill at the base of the wall. The tunnel was 30 feet long, dark as night, and full of spider webs. I thought back to the initial safety brief we received when we got to YPG that listed about 200 different insects and reptiles that would happily bite and kill you given the chance. Here was a cool, dark, isolated environment with signs of habitation by a good sized spider family. Just the sort of place they told you not to go.
Some dogs, like some people, don’t like confined spaces. A scared dog can react in a variety of ways, including freezing up, shaking, vocalizing, and biting everything within reach. It’s really the last in that list that we are concerned with, because it’s very difficult to get away from a dog when you are crawling through a tunnel and it is attached to you with a leash. The safest way to deal with this is by applying a muzzle to the dog, and controlling it’s head to the best of your ability while crawling. The preferred way to accomplish controlling the dog is to sit the dog on your left with the leash in your right hand, running across your body. You then step over the leash with your left leg, and lay down in front of the dog. This places the dog between your legs with your body between the dog’s teeth and your face. You can then control the movement of the dog by pulling forward on the leash, sucking the dog’s head up against your butt, keeping them against the ground.
It was over 100 degrees, and we had just done a route clear up a hill to the village and searched around to the back to locate the tunnel. Fama was panting pretty heavily, and I was cooking myself, so we took a little break and had a drink while I thought about how I was going to deal with a rattlesnake in the tunnel, laying on my belly, with a dog between my legs. I’ll just put my head down so my helmet will deflect the rattlesnake bites while I back out of the tunnel screaming like a little girl. That was the best I could come up with.
Joey was telling us to get moving, so we assumed the position with Fama behind me, between my legs, with her head on my butt. I decided to forgo the muzzle because she was still panting pretty heavily and it would restrict her breathing. We entered the tunnel like a very small, very slow train, inching our way along. I was desperately peering into the darkness in search of anything creepy, ready to make a run for it at the first sign of critters. Fama was having no fun at all. She started by trying to shake free and back up, so I pulled her in and kept moving. I was just hoping to get to the end of the tunnel as quickly as possible while avoiding fangs at all cost. The shaking grew more violent, and she sprinkled in a few growls for spice. I did the math, and Fama’s fangs were longer than a spider’s, so I picked up the pace. We were getting close to the other end of the tunnel. I could clearly see light, but not an opening. I stopped for a second to assess the situation and Fama, being the little caboose that could, bit me in the ass to get me going.
Luckily, I had my helmet on, because my head bounced off the top of the tunnel. Turning around as far as I could, I pinned her head up against the side of the tunnel with my leg (thank God for the leash) and looked her in the eye. We were both remembering our little scuffle in the parking lot back in Indiana. I could just make out her eyes in the chem-light green glow at the end of the tunnel. I started whispering sweet threats of strangulation and ended up promising to bury her body in an unmarked grave in the desert if she bit me again. We came to the conclusion that we should just get this over with, so I flipped back over and continued down the tunnel. I forgot all about the spiders.
I reached the end of the tunnel and discovered that it turned 90 degrees up, and emptied into a room inside the compound. Because of the amount of equipment I was wearing, I couldn’t just stand up. My back hit the top of the tunnel, so I had to squirm around and lay on my back to get into a position where I could sit up, slide my hips back under me, and then stand. When I flipped over to my back and sat up, the leash was no longer in between my legs and I was sitting face to face with a dog that just bit me. I began another conversation about what would happen if she did anything stupid, and Fama took this as her cue. She ran up my face, through the hole in the floor of the room, and began searching. I just dropped the leash and crawled out, shaking my head in bewilderment.
When we finished clearing that building we entered a central courtyard and found Joey over by a house. I told him about what had happened in the tunnel.
“I bet you put a muzzle on her next time, huh Chief,” he grinned. Thanks Joey.
He instructed me to hook Fama up on the long line, so I switched leashes and then joined him at the doorway. This was to be an exercise in ninja skills, where you search a building on long line, but the handler stays at the doorway, feeling what the dog is doing through 30 foot of cotton. Fama, eager as always and energized by her snack of ass, was hovering 2 inches off the ground, locked onto my eyes, begging for the word to go. I let her sit there a minute, paybacks are hell, and then put her to work.
She hit the door searching and quickly went around the corner into the first room. I kept slight tension on the leash so I could feel what was going on. After having searched hundreds of rooms with her, I could close my eyes and picture what she was doing through the feedback I was getting from the leash. It was amazing. I felt her leave the first room and enter the one across the hall, because she always gives a little lunge when she enters a room. She came back into the hall, paused to look for me, decided I was not necessary, and moved further into the house. I was standing still as a statue outside the door with my eyes closed. Fama was my Avatar. Tug on the leash; she had entered another room. Her respiratory rate sharply increased, and her movement became less frantic, smoother. She was on odor. She checked back towards the door quickly and then discarded that area with a quick spin, her head snapping quickly to capture the scent. She moved to the far end of the room, and exhaled sharply, I was listening for it, clearing her nose for that last big sniff, just to be sure. She sat. I could feel her tail wagging.
I had tears in my eyes. My heart swelled with pride in my dog, with pride in US as a team. I could see her, ears forward, focused, every bit of energy directed towards the hide. I could feel her glance towards the door, waiting for daddy and her reward. I walked down the hall just far enough to see her tail wagging through the doorway and tossed her ball to where I knew her head was. The house exploded with oggie-boogie voices as Joey and I gave Fama the party that she so deserved. She was doing the full body wiggle with an occasional victory lap around the room, her eyes bright as the sun. This was the best job in the world.
Every dog team needs to go through certification before deploying to Afghanistan. This test of the dog and handler is conducted by high ranking dog experts in the Military Working Dog program, people with years of experience working dogs on the street and in hostile environments as Military Police. The testing consists of multiple venues stretched across several days, in which the dog teams must perform a variety of searches without missing any hides. Military Police work their dogs using different search and handling techniques than we do, so there was an added concern that they would feel we were doing things wrong, just because we worked our dogs in different ways than they were used to seeing.
Having such experienced people critique the our every move, with failure resulting in the handler being stripped of their dog and sent back to their unit in Afghanistan, placed an enormous amount of pressure on us to succeed. No one wanted to give up their partner who they had just spent the past 2 months bonding and training with, just to go back to their unit a failure. The trainers had done their best to prepare us for successful deployment, using their intimate knowledge of each team to build training venues that would challenge both the handlers and dogs, and to address individual issues any of the dog teams were having. They tried to put us at ease with the upcoming certification, explaining to us that it was just another training day, but we were definitely under the gun. We knew it was a pass or fail situation, and our careers as dog handlers were on the line.
Unlike Military Police dog teams, who just keep trying to certify until they pass, our units were waiting for us in Afghanistan. We were going down range either with, or without, our dog. Our months of training, preparation and hard work had culminated in 4 days of testing, administered by people we had never worked with. Our trainers would understand if a dog team had an off day. It happens to everyone. Our certifying officials had no prior knowledge of our dogs, so their opinion of you as a team was formed on that first day of testing. You can never change a first impression.
We were gathered outside the kennels, anxiously awaiting the arrival of our trainers and certifying officials. You could feel the tension in the air. There was no witty banter, no horseplay. Everyone had a knot in their stomach. Heath came over and gave us a pep talk, trying to life our spirits and prepare us for the day. It helped a little, seeing his confidence in us, hearing his words of encouragement. The Sergeant Major, accompanied my a Master Sergeant, pulled up in his SUV and hopped out to get things under way. He must have seen the apprehension in the group because he immediately tried to put us at ease.
“Hey guys, this is going to be an easy day for you and your dogs. I’m not trying to screw anybody out of certification. We need to see 3 things when you come out to a venue. Can your dog recognize odor? Can you see the change of behavior in your dog when it is on odor and communicate that to us? Do you search in a complete, thorough, and safe manner? This is just another day of training. Come out there and do your thing like you have been over the last 2 months, and you won’t have anything to worry about.”
We divided the dog teams into 2 groups and headed out to decide our fates. I drove out to the first certification venue and prepared for the first test. I got my gear on and made sure I had plenty of water. It was promising to be a hot day with the temperature already over 90 degrees at 8 in the morning. We had some time to kill. I had decided to go last in our group because the heat didn’t effect Fama as much as some of the other dogs, so I got Fama out of her crate and took her off to the side do her business and to have a little talk.
“Hey mama, we have an important day in front of us. I promise not to let you down, and I trust you to do the same. I know we have had our disagreements, but I think you want to stay with me just as bad as I want to stay with you. Let’s go find some bombs.”
When a dog team finished a venue they walked to a separate holding area to wait for the rest of the group. The certifying officials didn’t want anyone to inform the handlers that were waiting to run where the hides were located. The group awaiting their turn to go could see the finished teams walking to their respective holding area, and there were a lot of heads hung low and dejected shuffles . Our confidence was sinking as we saw the failure written on the wall. The last handler in line before me was called to the venue to prove their worth, and my heart was in my throat.
Fama and I approached the Sergeant Major, who was talking with Eddie and Mark, at a compound where we would run our first venue. The Sergeant Major asked how we were doing and gave us a quick brief on what we were to do. I could see the desperate hope on the faces of my trainers, which caused me to swallow a lump in my throat. I was familiar with the compound, as we had trained there before. There were rooms along the outside wall of the 50 yard square compound. I took a deep breath, put Fama on the long line, and went right to work.
Fama went to the right, just inside the compound, heading towards the first room. I waited outside, watching through the door as she performed her clockwise search of the room. She threw a change of behavior, with her head snapping back to the left and her tail going crazy, and sat, indicating on a chair in the corner. I said, “Stay,” to indicate to the certifying official that she had responded in the room.
“No,” said the Sergeant Major.
My heart sank. Fama was never one to false indicate, so I went over to see what had happened. The chair she indicated on was of the banquet hall variety, and there was an indent in the vinyl on the seat that I quickly identified as being left by a short link of machine gun ammunition, and there was definitely residual odor present that Fama had indicated on. My first reaction was to argue with the Sergeant Major, but I decided that I could plead my case later, and for the benefit of my dog, I should just get her back to work. I praised her for doing a good job as I pulled her out of the room, and directed her to continue the search around the compound.
We were working at a pretty good pace, as the rooms were small, and I knew that if there was a hide in that small of a room, Fama would pick it up almost immediately upon entering the room. After 3 more blank rooms, she exhibited a huge change of behavior, leaving tracks in the gravel of the courtyard as she whipped around, searching for the source of the odor. I was elated. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Fama was on odor, and we were about to pass our first certification venue. She drug me right over to a small, hidden room at the back of the compound, bracketing along the way. She reached the doorway of the room and headed right in, her sniffing audible over my footsteps. I waited outside in the courtyard for a few seconds, giving her a chance to work it out and sit. I peeked in the doorway, and there she was, kicking up dust with her tail, nose planted 2 inches from a tarp laying on the floor that was obviously concealing the hide. I said, “Stay,” with great confidence, and reached into my pocket for the ball. There was no doubt in Fama’s mind, or mine, that there was a bomb under that tarp. I didn’t even wait for a response from the Sergeant Major, I just threw the ball and started the party.
After the doggie Macarena concluded and I got my ball back, the Sergeant Major said we were done, and called me over for a word. We jogged over to where he and the trainers were standing.
“Good job today Sergeant,” he said. “That’s a good looking dog you’ve got there. What happened in that first room?”
“Sergeant Major, it looks like there was a few rounds of linked 7.62 ammo sitting on the chair in the corner, but someone removed them. The indentation is still in the chair. I believe my dog was indicating on residual odor and not false sitting,” I said.
“Well, let’s just go check it out and see.”
The 4 of us proceeded to the first room, where Fama supposedly false indicated, and the Sergeant Major stepped through the door, looking for the chair. I pointed it out to him, and he immediately saw the 7 indentations in the vinyl, shaped like bullets, with some rust and crud left on the seat where someone had removed them earlier.
“You send that dog back in here and we will see what she does,” he said, so I waited by the door until everyone was outside the room, unhooked Fama’s leash, and gave her the search command, directing her to go back into the room. I stepped back away from the door so the Sergeant Major wouldn’t think I was giving my dog a cue to respond in the right area. Sure enough, she made her way back around the room to that chair and sat, her nose pointing right at the dents on the seat. I had a big smile on my face when I walked past the Sergeant Major and tossed the ball to Fama.
“I guess you were right Sergeant. We should have spotted that earlier in the day, but no one bothered to tell us until now.”
Our praise party was extra special that time. Fama was doing a great job at making me look good, and I wanted her to know I appreciated it. We headed towards the entrance to the compound to go to the next venue. Eddie and Mark gave a thumbs up and high five for our good performance on the way by. I was feeling really good about us as a team. The nervousness was gone. There were no more thoughts about failure. I was just excited to run another venue with my dog.
The next certification venue was a building about 50 yards long, that consisted of 7 rooms in a row with doorways between all the rooms. Because of the wind, I decided to search the exterior of the building prior to going inside. With Fama off leash, worked our way down one side of the building, around the end, and were heading back down the other side of the building when Fama took off, obviously on odor. She was going pretty fast, indicating that either the source was close, or the hide was big. I just observed her working and started to look for probably places for the hide to be located. She hit the brakes, spun around, and headed through a doorway into the building. I hurried to the doorway to see what was going on inside, and when I got there, I had to turn around and laugh. The hide was up on a shelf in the corner of the room, about 7 feet in the air. In front of this shelf was a 3 foot by 3 foot plywood box, 4 feet tall, that I assume the certifying official used to reach the shelf when he planted the training aid. Fama had jumped up on the box, and was sitting with her front paws right at the leading edge of the box, stretched out, with her nose just barely touching the edge of the shelf. Her tail was pounding out Moby Dick on the plywood box. She was trying to make herself long enough to reach the hide with her nose while staying in the sit position. The certifying official had come through the building so he could see if Fama was indicating in the right location. He walked through the door into the room and shared the same reaction I had, chuckling and shaking his head.
We were on our way back to the truck when I saw John and his dog Taz walking up to the venue. Little Taz is a Pit-Lab mix, full of energy. I had noticed the wind shift in such a way that Taz might detect the odor from the far side of the building, so I stopped and watched the beginning of their search. John began by going down the same side of the building I had started on, and when Taz walked by a small window that was 5 foot off the ground, he put his feet up on the wall, gave a good sniff, and jumped right through the window. John looked both ways down the side of the building, and threw up his hands. There were no doors. He ran back to the end of the building where he started, heading in to find his crazy dog. We walked back to the truck, deeply satisfied, with Taz’s praise party as our soundtrack.
All the handlers were congregating in front of the kennels after the day of certification venues, talking about how their individual days had gone. A quick look around told the story. There were many long faces and empty stares at the ground. There were several teams that had failed certification on the first day, and several more that were on the ropes. The instructors tried to cheer us up and keep the teams that were left focused on the day ahead of them. It was hard to think about your buddy, that you had sucked with for almost 2 months now, going down range without his dog. It was hard to be happy about the day that Fama and I had when our friends were hurting. Heath came over to address the group.
“You guys need to relax out there. None of these venues was difficult at all. You defeated yourselves by over-thinking everything. Every one of you could have passed today, but you got so nervous about the certification that you fell apart. No one is going home just yet. All the dog teams will continue through certification, and the passing teams will be announced at the end. Whoever fails to certify will be given a second chance, after further training. They will stay behind and certify with the next class that comes through. Now get some rest, and relax out there tomorrow.”
Sighs of relief traveled through the crowd. It wasn’t the end of the road after all. The handlers started joking around, poking fun at the ones who could take it, and comforting the ones who needed it. Our group had grown tight over the last couple of months, and it was good to know that no one was out of the game just yet. It was time to head home, get some sleep, and get ready to kick some ass the following day.
The next 3 days of certification were much the same. Teams continued to struggle in the heat, and under the pressure. I saw one dog dive under a bush and lay down, just happy to get some shade. The handler carried her to an ATV we had waiting to take her back to the kennels and get her cooled down. There were times on the long route clear that I would take Fama’s temperature every 10 minutes to be sure she wasn’t overheating. Some guys just made stupid mistakes and didn’t get their dogs into the area that the hide was located. In the end, only 8 out of the original 20 made it through the first certification.
We had a little graduation ceremony at the hotel, complete with a slideshow of pictures and cake. Fama and I were recognized as the “Top Dog” team, and presented with a plaque and an award. I was so proud of my little girl. She hunted through the worst parts of the day, giving the dogs that were struggling a chance to run in the morning when it was cool. She never faltered, never quit, even when her temperature was 106 degrees. She never even slowed down. I felt bad for the guys that didn’t make it. They had all tried every bit as hard as I did. It mattered to them.
The next days were spent packing. We were to take a military flight directly from YPG, so we got all our bags and dog food on pallets, ready to fly. The 8 of us loaded up on buses and headed to the flight line. Fama rode up in the bus with me this time. I was not having a repeat of the trip leaving Indiana. We loaded up on the C17 and headed across the pond, stopping in Germany for a 16 hour layover, where the dogs stayed in the Military Police kennels. The next afternoon we were in Afghanistan. Shit just got real.
The second the ramp was opened on the C17, that familiar, unwelcome smell drifted through the plane. The compost smell of the middle east. It’s a mix of shit and garbage, that have both been around since the dawn of time. I didn’t miss that smell. The ever present wind at Bagram Air Field was full of fine dust. I didn’t want to think about what that dust could possibly contain. The anticipation of the unknown was visible. No one knew what to expect, and for some of the handlers, this was their first deployment. The cherries all had wrinkled noses. Welcome to Afghanistan, here’s your mouth full of shit.
We deplaned with our dogs, glad for the half mile walk to the terminal. As we walked across the flight line, I felt lucky to be in good company. The 8 of us that made it through certification were all good soldiers, and good friends. Sly was there with his dog Bak, a silly, knuckle-headed, all black German Shepherd. Scott had Chatsi, the little female Malinois, who was darting around him like a pinball while they walked. John was laughing as Taz did front flips, trying to get his muzzle off. Alex was being drug down the pavement by Bruno, a Malinois the size of some small Great Danes. Larry had Alex, the cross eyed German Shepherd who acts like a puppy, and pees on his front feet. Shane walked with Fil, a nice young German Shepherd. Griff, a beautiful male Malinois, was pulling Long all over the place, just like a typical Mal. The dogs were as different in appearance and personality as the handlers, but we made a great group.
It was nice to stretch our legs and let the pups have some freedom. We had been cooped up on that C17 for the better part of 3 days. Luchian and Gary had left 2 weeks prior to our departure to get everything ready for us when we got there. They both met us at the terminal and helped us get in-processed, so the Army knew just where we were. It is a definite challenge to navigate a busy flight line with all your gear and a dog. The trainers, having both deployed with dogs before, were a great help, plus, it was great to see some familiar faces. We knew we were in good hands.
We loaded all our gear and dog food on a flat bed truck and hopped on a bus with our dogs, which took us around the flight line to the other side of BAF (Bagram Air Field) to our temporary home, an empty motor pool. We shacked up with our dogs in a big garage for the night, happy to have a place to stay that was close to the chow hall. There were 2 old offices in the motor pool that had bunk beds in them, and we quickly claimed our bunks and got settled in.
I kept Fama in the room with me in her crate, while the rest of the dogs were out in the garage. This helped keep her quiet, or none of us would have had any sleep. Every time somebody would walk past her kennel, she would ambush them, barking 3 or 4 times until they walked away. John forgot that Fama was in the room, and walked right by her kennel. Her timing was perfect. When she barked, it startled him so much he bounced off the bunk bed across the aisle and almost fell over. He sat down on the bunk, clutching his chest and shaking his head. “Hi Fama,” he said.
The truck and bus showed up the next afternoon and took us over to the tent, our home for the next month. We walked through the door into pandemonium. There were dogs and handlers everywhere, and it sounded like 100 dogs were barking. We didn’t know it, but there were 30 dog teams on their way home, living in the same tent we were going to be staying in. We all grabbed a spot to sleep, which consisted of a bunk bed and just enough room for a dog crate next to it. Luckily, there were metal wall lockers in between each sleeping area, so we had a little privacy, and plenty of electrical outlets. Soldiers just can’t live without their laptops.
Fama was on high alert, barking at everything that moved. She was used to staying alone with me in the hotel room, and now she had to deal with sharing her space with 37 dogs, 37 handlers, and 2 trainers. I ran some 550 cord, basic nylon rope used by soldiers for everything from boot laces to lashing a load down on a truck, and hung a couple of blankets around our new home. This helped her quiet down, a little. I ended up running her leash through the door on her crate to her collar, so I could correct her when she decided to be an ass. By evening time, she had settled in and started to relax.
The next morning I took Fama out to relieve herself, and noticed she was scratching quite a bit. She stopped several times through our walk to dig at this spot, and then that. This was something new, but I figured she just needed to get used to the strange climate. It was even hotter here than in Arizona, and it would take the dogs and handlers both a couple of weeks to adjust. After breakfast, the trainers started our acclimatization.
We gathered on the road out in front of the compound where our tent was located, and conducted PT (physical training). We were to sprint down the road, with our dogs, 100 yards to a set of barriers, and walk back. Fama was looking good, heeling by my left leg on a loose leash. All that obedience training we did was paying off. After 4 repetitions of the sprint and walk, we stopped to check our dog’s temperatures to make sure they were not over heating, when Alex went into a panic. Bruno had been pulling at the end of the leash the whole time they were running, and his temperature was 106.5, and rising. This is the point where some dogs can experience permanent brain damage. Alex went from confident soldier to concerned parent in the blink of an eye.
Bruno seemed fine. He was panting hard, but he didn’t have any signs of serious trouble, such as loss of coordination, the inability to stop panting, confusion, or vomiting. Alex, who is a huge human being, snatched the 95 pound Bruno off the ground with one hand, put him up on his shoulder, and headed for the shade of the tent at a sprint. Once there, a whole crew of handlers started cooling Bruno off by misting him with water, and rubbing his belly with wet hands. Alex had put Bruno in front of the “swamp cooler,” a big fan that draws air through a water soaked filter for cooling by evaporation. Gary loaded them up in a van and took the dog team to the Vet’s office right away. We were all worried about them until they came back. We all rushed to the door when we heard Bruno bark his customary “hello” when he entered the tent. Bruno was his normal goofy self, trying his best to pull off a Marmaduke impersonation, bouncing around the tent, barking playfully at everyone, play bowing and hopping like he was 8 months old. Alex had the look of a relieved parent. All his energy gone, used up worrying about his battle buddy.
That afternoon, we went out to do our first training venue in Afghanistan. We loaded up the dogs on the back of a flat bed “Bongo” truck, and put the handlers in a green van, making quite the spectacle as we drove out to the training area, with 8 barking dogs on the back of the truck. Gary and Luchian had told us not to expect much from our dogs. They had to learn the new smells in this area, and had to get used to the new climate. Gary set up a simple open area search in a big stone lot. It was an easy detection problem compared to what we had been doing in Arizona.
I volunteered to go first, confident in Fama’s ability to find the hide in this area. They said the dogs would go through the same thing when we went to Arizona, and Fama had never missed a beat. I got her out of her crate, and headed out to Gary, who was waiting in the middle of the stone lot. Fama did not like the stones at all. She was picking her way along like walking on hot coals. We had never worked on a surface like this before, and it was very uncomfortable for her. Suck it up dog, there is work to do. We got to Gary and he noted how Fama was walking. He said she would get used to it, and having fun while in the stones would help that process.
I asked Fama to sit, removed her leash, and gave her the command to search. At this time, she would normally squirt ahead of me, searching diligently in a focused manner. She took 3 steps and looked back over her shoulder. This was going to take some work. I picked up the enthusiasm, hopping around, getting out ahead of her presenting things for her to search, showing her that it was fun. I was getting really gay with it, in full on oggie-boogie mode, and she was responding. Her tail was moving and her movement was better. I knew we were quickly coming up on the hide, and she should be exhibiting that beautiful change of behavior she was known for. I presented right on the hide when she was less than 3 feet away. The bitch walked right by.
I could hardly believe my eyes. Fama looked like she was searching, with her nose to the ground, her sniffing audible. It was terrifying to think that she could fool me like this. What if it happened on a mission? I had built this incredible wall of trust over the last 2 months, and it had just crumbled. I was racking my brain, trying to figure out what had happened. I turned her around and gave her a second shot at the hide. She responded this time, but her butt never touched the ground. She was hovering, not wanting to sit on the stones. I pushed my emotions aside and tossed her ball, having a big ‘ole party out in the stones. We had some serious work to do.
Many of the dog teams had worked through issues in Indiana and Arizona with expert advice from the trainers and some hard work, but it had never been me. Fama was a rock. She was the dog that all the handlers compared their dogs to, but now she walked a hide. I needed a plan, right now. Luchian told me not to worry about it. Fama just needed some time to get used to the change in environment. The Army requires a 30 day acclimatization period for that specific reason. Gary said to have fun with her on uncomfortable surfaces, and get her feet toughened up. The reassurance from my trainers helped me relax a bit, as we weren’t going outside the wire tomorrow. We would get through this.
During my health check that afternoon, I noticed that Fama’s ears were getting remarkably cruddy, with an offensive smell to them. She had also continued scratching much more than normal. I asked Gary to arrange an appointment with the Vet to get her checked out, so if there was a problem starting, we had the best chance to get it under control. The Vet asked that we bring her over right away for an exam, so we loaded her up in the Bongo and headed to the Vet’s office, with Fama announcing our presence all the way.
The vet clinic on BAF is located inside the hospital, which shows how important the Army considers the health of working dogs. They receive the same level of healthcare as the soldiers. The clinic was not a thrown together, field expedient operation. It was a hospital, full of modern equipment, smelling lightly of disinfectant. Fama immediately recognized that this was a clinic. She had her “don’t mess with me or I will eat you” face on. I put her on the scale and got a weight on her. She was up to 68 pounds from the measly 46 when I picked her up at the kennels in Indiana. The Vet came right out to meet us, introduced herself, and asked us back to one of the exam rooms.
I could tell from the way she was acting; maintaining distance from Fama, not making eye contact, moving slowly, that she had been doing this a while. There would be no muzzle punching of naive Vets happening today. She had me restrain Fama, good first impression Doc, and gave instructions on what she was going to do.
She said, “We have to draw some blood for tests, from her neck.”
I giggled. “This could get interesting Doc.”
I placed my butt into the corner of the room, for support, backed Fama up in between my legs and had her sit. Then I bent over, lifted her head up against my chest, trapping her muzzle in the crook of my left arm while gripping my right shoulder with my left hand. I squeezed her shoulders with my knees and whispered some sweet sounding threats of violence in her ear. They were going to stick a needle in her neck, and I really didn’t want her moving at all. A veterinary technician came over to us to perform the blood draw.
Fama was doing fine, remaining calm, with no heavy breathing or jerking about, until the vet tech touched her. I have no idea how she knew it wasn’t me touching her. Her eyes were covered. Maybe she smelled him. Whatever super-sense she used, she went from totally placid to lifting my feet off the ground in the space of 5 seconds, a deep, menacing growl issuing from her chest. I was sliding around the office, still in the same hunched over position with her head trapped against my chest, like a turtle in Super Mario. I outweigh Fama by 100 pounds, and she was taking me for a ride, her little feet skittering on the tiled floor.
The vet tech was now looking at Fama like she was devil spawn. The Vet, sensing how uncomfortable the tech had become, relieved the tech of the syringe and took matters into her own hands. I got Fama backed into the corner again, and the Vet made her move. She was in and out before Fama knew what hit her. She reacted just like before, but it was too late. I was just happy I stayed on for the full 7 seconds. When the exam was over, I took her muzzle off and let her have a ball. She laid in the corner chewing on her ball, watching every move the staff made with an evil eye.
The Vet’s conclusion was that Fama had allergies. She loaded me up with special food, Benedryl, ear medicine and special shampoo. She also set up an appointment for every Tuesday for more oral medicine and an exam so we could track progress. I had a notebook sheet full of notes, a bag full of drugs, and an itchy dog. When we got back to the tent I gave her a bath with the oatmeal shampoo, cleaned and medicated her ears, stuffed a couple of Benedryl down her throat and hoped for the best. That night she kept me awake scratching in her crate. I got up every 4 hours and gave her more Benedryl, but they didn’t seem to be helping much. She had enough drugs in her to put me flat on the floor, but she just kept scratching.
Over the next few days, Fama continued to worsen. Her scratching kept her from sleeping at night, and the Benedryl kept her from ever being fully awake. She was acting like a zombie when we were training, never fully committing to the search. I had to change the way we worked together. When healthy, Fama would proactively search an area, requiring little, if any, direction or input from me. Stoned Fama required constant supervision and encouragement. She was a different dog altogether.
The next visit to the vet brought no clarity to the situation. The blood tests showed no indication of any problem. The samples of ear crud turned out to be garden variety yeast and bacteria which the medication was already killing off. Fama’s belly had turned red with a leathery texture, and the skin between her paws was inflamed. She had scratched her sides so much that she was raw behind her front legs.
The Vet said that if it was a food allergy, it could take a month or 2 to clear up. I just didn’t have a month or 2. I didn’t have a day to waste. We were going to go looking for bombs in the most heavily mined country in the world, where bad guys were going to be trying to blow us up. I needed my dog back, now. Gary and I started talking about switching dogs and re-certifying. I was too good a handler to just go back to my unit, and it would be terrible to waste the opportunity to save the lives of my brothers just because my dog was sick.
The Army Program Manager in charge of all working dogs in our Regional Command, Sergeant First Class Shemp (an MP), had been charged with validating each dog team before they pushed forward to their unit, which means we had to stand before the man and prove ourselves again, just like in Arizona, but this time my dog was sick. Through talking with the 30 dog handlers occupying our tent, we found out that only 5 of them had passed this validation. These were dog teams that were already certified in Arizona, just like we were. Fama and I were under the gun, and something had to change or our time together was quickly coming to a close.
Chris was a handler, living in the tent, that was still trying to validate with SFC Shemp. He had a little male black Lab named Marshall, who is the cutest dog anywhere on the planet. He would run and jump up in my lap, turning himself upside down with his tail buffeting my nose, just to say “Hi.” He was also a great bomb dog. We used to make jokes about Chris not having to leave the truck. He could just send Marshall out, and he would come back 10 minutes later with the location of all the bombs written down on a piece of paper. About the same time that Fama was really having health trouble, Chris had some health trouble of his own. He was bent over doing something on his bottom bunk, when he stood up really fast, hitting the back of his head on the metal frame of the top bunk, and knocked himself unconscious. He gave himself a concussion, and was kept at the hospital for observation.
I decided to take responsibility for the care of Marshall while Chris was at the hospital so none of the junior soldiers would have to suffer because of the extra workload. Plus, he is the cutest dog in the world, and he really liked his Uncle David. I started taking him out when we were training so he could burn off some energy. I would work Fama early in the training venue and then run Marshall last. He and I were working very well together, so Gary and I started talking about switching me over to Marshall if Fama didn’t come around. I hated the idea of giving her up, but I had a mission to do, and if I had to do it with Marshall or not do it at all, I was going to take Marshall. Did I mention he’s really cute too?
We were training at night on the other side of BAF in an empty lot that was 100 yards wide and 250 yards long. We were doing a big open area search through a recently bull dozed dirt lot. Fama was feeling a little better that night. I had started adjusting the number of Bennies I was stuffing down her neck according to whether we were working or resting. I was seriously knocking her out when it was time to sleep, and then backing way off when it was work time. She was beginning to show shades of her former self. She banged out both hides in the open area from a good distance, and she was working with more enthusiasm, which inspired serious hope in my little dog handler heart. I was having a great night.
I was out watching the last few dogs run the venue, standing with Luchian.
“Hey, are you running Marshall,” he asked.
“Sure I will. He’s on the back of the truck. Do you care if I don’t wear all my gear? I already ran once tonight with Fama.”
“Hell, I don’t care if you run it in your underwear.”
“OK then,” I smiled.
I ran back to the truck, where Scott and Sly were hanging out, waiting for everyone to finish up. I immediately started taking my clothes off. They were looking at me like I was crazy, but I just smiled and kept stripping.
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Sly.
“I’m running this venue in my underwear. Isn’t it obvious?”
I was down to my socks and briefs when I put by boots back on. I gathered up all the equipment I would need, and tried to figure out how I was going to carry it all. I wrapped my leash around my shoulders, hung my night vision goggles around my neck with a piece of 550 cord, put a flashlight under my left arm, and was left with the tennis ball. I put the flashlight back, Gary already had one, and was contemplating where to put the ball. If Marshall saw it, there would be no hunting for bombs. He would just bug me for the ball. I shrugged my shoulders, hooked the waistband of my jockeys with my thumb, opened up and dropped the ball in, the waistband snapping closed. Only room for one (wink wink). I was ready.
Marshall and I stood by the truck, waiting for the call from Gary for the next dog team. The guys were frantically trying to figure out how to get a good picture, but they couldn’t get it done in time. We were up. I headed out towards my trainers, waiting for their reaction. It was a dark night, and they were discussing the performance of the team that had just finished, so I got to within 20 yards before Luchian looked my way. He squinted, with his head lurching forward. He could tell something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t see me clearly yet. I soldiered on.
“Oh holy hell!” Luchian burst out.
He was laughing his ass off. Gary had yet to spot me, so he looked at Luchian to see what was going on. I made it all the way to Gary before he turned around, his hand missing my tennis ball by inches. I thought I was going to have to come back later and run Marshall. We laughed uncontrollably for about 5 minutes. After I could breathe, I explained the conversation Luchian and I had, and that I was just following instructions.
“Well get to it then,” said Gary.
Marshall had been enjoying the laugh as much as the rest of us. He was all fired up and squiggly, ready and willing. I sent him out and he took off, zooming around like a black ballistic missile on crack. We worked our way over towards the first hide, and he nailed it. I tossed his ball and he went crazy. He was running all over the field, doing doggie drive by’s, playing keep away with his ball. I finally got him reeled in 2 minutes later, and got my ball back. When a dog runs around, they develop slobber. The more they run, the more they slobber. Marshall had been running around for a good 10 minutes now, and he was lathered up like Secretariat. I held my ball up by 2 fingers, and it dripped on my boots. Gary and Luchian were just staring at me, waiting for us to continue the search to the second hide. I just held the ball there until it sank in. I could tell by the look on their faces. They had figured it out. I hooked my thumb behind the waistband of my jockeys….
Fama was getting better about searching in areas that were covered in materials that were uncomfortable on her feet, but she was still reluctant to just dive in and search with the careless abandon she displayed on more sure footing. We had been training in a lot of rubble piles, gravel and vegetation with thorns and prickers, along with a lot of running on the road, which was helping her pads to develop thicker callouses. I had the opportunity to do some afternoon training, so I approached Gary with the idea of working with me and Fama, independent from the rest of the group, in some nasty places and having lots of fun, so she would quit being such a sissy. Gary thought this was a good idea, and retrieved a training aid for me to use. He handed over the training aid and turned back to his desk. Up to this point, we were never allowed to work our dogs on odor without a trainer present, for fear of messing up the dog, so I assumed he was going to accompany us.
Gary turned and noticed I was waiting for him. “Well get out of here. Let me know how it goes,” he said.
Not only was he trusting me to train with my dog by myself, but he had faith in me to let me work through a problem Fama was having. This was a huge step for me and a compliment, coming from Gary. I was really coming into my own as a handler as well as a trainer. Reading dogs while they were searching was becoming a habit instead of a struggle, and not just my own dog. I spent as much time as possible watching other teams work, listening intently to what Gary and Luchian had to say. I picked their brains about anything I didn’t understand, asking dozens of questions and offering theories about what I saw happening during training. They were always enthusiastic about my interest and willing to help me learn. They could see my passion for dogs and detection work.
I took Fama down the street to a vacant lot where we had trained 3 days prior, which was full of nasty plants with small thorns, long enough to be uncomfortable on her feet, but not long enough to do any harm. We walked to the center of the lot, Fama picking her way through the vegetation daintily. I tossed the ball to the right, and when she took off with her attention on the ball, tossed the training aid to the left. I got my ball back and immediately gave her the search command, directing her in the direction of the tossed aid. It hadn’t gone far and she was on odor almost immediately, working hesitantly to the hide and responding. I tossed her ball immediately and repeated the process, over and over again, until she was crashing through the prickly weeds with enthusiasm.
We went over to a picnic table nearby and took a break. After giving Fama some water, I told her to stay, walked around the corner where she couldn’t see me, and tossed the training aid deep into another vacant lot full of prickers. I let her catch her breath for 10 minutes and then took her over to the new field to see how she would react. She was really excited, which was a sight for sore eyes. She was hovering 2 inches off the ground, the hard stare of focused anticipation locked onto my eyes, awaiting the opportunity to go find that bomb. I sent her out into the field, but not right at the hide. She had to work for this one, and work she did. She was tearing through the weeds, mindless of the small pricks against her paws and belly. It brought back memories of Indiana with Fama blasting through open fields of grass with focused drive and enthusiasm. I had successfully reminded her that nothing else really mattered except that bomb. I had thrown the aid into a particularly nasty part of the lot that was thick with weeds. She worked her way right into the center of the weed patch without a second thought, sitting beautifully and indicating with her trademark focused stare. We were definitely on our way back.
We were training vehicle searches in a parking lot of 17 garbage trucks, which were lined up in 5 uneven rows with 6 to 8 feet between the front and back bumpers. The rows were only about 6 feet apart, so it made of a compact area full of places to search. A garbage truck has a variety of interesting places to hide a training aid, so the search was a relatively difficult one. I decided to work Fama off leash, which ended up being a mistake. She was running all over the lot. I couldn’t even keep her in my sight, let alone keep up and make sure she was searching all the productive areas on each vehicle. I was getting frustrated as I had become used to a slower, calmer Fama that needed constant direction to work, and now her enthusiasm and energy level were returning to normal. She was adjusting far faster than me. I felt like it was week one back in Indiana and I had no control over my dog, and it was pissing me off.
We came to the end of a row of trucks and I stopped the search to gather myself. I called Fama over and asked her to sit. She was waiting impatiently to get on with it, her frustration growing by the second. I walked to the next row of trucks and made her sit, right at the back of a garbage truck. The compactor was down inside the back of the truck, with the rounded surface of the back of the blade creating a ramp inside the garbage truck that extended all the way to the top of the interior of the truck. I wanted to make sure Fama checked up in the back of the truck, so I gave the search command and directed her towards the garbage compartment. I was expecting her to lift her head up and sniff the open back of the truck, or maybe put her front feet up on the truck to get a better sniff. She decided she would offer a more thorough search.
Fama jumped up in the back of the truck and searched around, which was fine, but then she headed right up the steep ramp created by the compactor. My left eyeball almost fell out of my head. She wiggled to the top of the truck, searching the whole time, while I climbed into the back of the truck as quickly as I could manage in all my gear. My heart was racing. I could just see her slipping on the ramp and breaking her leg, or getting stuck somewhere up in the innards of the truck. I coaxed her down into my outstretched arms and lifted her out of the back of the truck, relieved that we had made it through another difficult situation unscathed. I worked my way out of the back of the truck, glad to see that Fama was fine.
“Is that your first time in the back of a garbage truck?” asked Gary, the perpetual smart-ass.
I was petting Fama now, trying to calm myself down. “Yep, first time,” I said, putting her back to work. After the search was over, Gary asked me if I learned anything.
“I will never search a group of vehicles off leash again, at least not with Fama.”
“Good. That sounds like a fine idea. Now go wash that shit off your boots.”
SFC Shemp was ready to get some dog teams validated and pushed out to their units. He had watched us work a few times and felt that some of us had progressed far enough in our training to get a shot at working in the real world. The validating process was not as formal as certification in Arizona. He just set up a few training venues when he was available and watched us work our dogs. There was a lot less pressure than at our certification, seeing that he was a Sergeant First Class and not a Sergeant Major. We had also been working as a dog team for an additional month, training daily with none of the distractions that we had in Arizona. We were living the dog life, 24-7.
The majority of the previous class had failed to pass this validation, but we were also performing at a higher level, due to changes in the training implemented by the trainers to better prepare us for testing. SFC Shemp had also been very encouraging during our training sessions, with many complimentary critiques of our searches. What we didn’t understand, at the time, was that SFC Shemp didn’t want us to succeed. He was upset that the training of MWD teams was no longer strictly under control of the Military Police. He was out to see us fail, to make the MP training program look like the only viable resource for explosive detection dogs. However, to our faces, he was nothing but nice.
The first validation problem he set up was late in the morning on a particularly hot day. It was late July in Afghanistan, so the heat was brutal through the hottest part of the day. We gathered at the testing location and set up a net for the dogs, so they could have some shade while they awaited their turn to run. SFC Shemp had also brought the MP dog handlers that were under his charge to run the venue for training. There were 7 of them, and they all had air conditioned SUVs to keep their dogs cool.
All 7 of the MP dog teams ran the venue first, and they took their sweet time about it. They were averaging 30 minutes each to work the problem, so it was early in the afternoon before our first dog got to run. The dogs had been sitting in their crates in the 120 degree heat for 3 hours. We were separate from the MP handlers, as were were in no way cool enough to associate with them, but we could see their dejected expressions and head shakes as they returned to their vehicles from the venue. We were informed later that none of the MP teams had found the training aid.
John and Taz were selected by SFC Shemp to be the first ones to run as they had been performing consistently throughout training, and had the highest chance of validating and being pushed forward to their unit. They returned from the training venue in less than 10 minutes with a big smile on their collective face. Taz was hot, his tongue lolling and dripping from the side of his mouth, snaked around a tennis ball. They had succeeded where all the MPs had failed. Bruno and Alex were next on the chopping block, and the result was the same. Bruno came racing over the hill back to the truck and jumped up in his crate, with his ball still in his mouth, before Alex was even in sight.
Fama and I were up next. There were butterflies in my stomach as I walked to where my trainers stood in conversation with SFC Shemp. It was time, once again, to prove ourselves as a team. The venue was a short route clear, up a hill, with a sharp turn to the right about half way up. There was a ditch which was full of green pricker weeds off to the left of the route, and a couple of large blacks of concrete placed right on the turn in the route, placed there to block vehicle traffic from using the path. With a reassuring nod from Luchian, I put Fama to work. She was already breathing out of her mouth, trying desperately to cool herself, but she was still focused on the task, searching with enthusiasm. She paused and checked out a big spot of disturbed earth on the right side of the path, discarded the spot, and checked back with me for direction.
I sent her left, across the path, down into the ditch full of prickers. She dove right in, not hesitating in the slightest at the presence of her nemesis. She crashed through the prickers, searching her little feet off down towards the turn in the road. I had moved down the road 25 yards, but was still 75 yards from the turn. Fama’s head came up and she threw a slight change of behavior, moving to my right towards the concrete blocks. I indicated to SFC Shemp that I thought she was on odor and let her work it out. She was searching methodically around the blocks, returning to where she had originally smelled the odor when she was unsuccessful to try again to locate the source.
Fama was not one to just plant her but when she thought she was close to the source of odor. She would work until she was satisfied that she had it nailed. Call it doggy pride, or good training. She didn’t appreciate help. I was getting nervous about her failure to exhibit a final response, and had stopped myself several times from pressing her on up the path. I had to reassure myself that I knew she was in odor, and that she would work it out. Fama had yet to look back to me for guidance, so I just let her work it out, standing there watching the Fama show. It took her 5 minutes to work her way to the other side of the path. Her nose touched the dirt in a location previously unchecked, and she froze, clearing her nose with a big snot and taking in a deep breath. I knew she had it.
Luchian walked to my side, his arms crossed and a big smile of satisfaction on his face. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. Fama plopped to the ground with her nose all but touching the hide. Every cell in her body was charged with the energy of the generations of dogs that came before her, hunting their prey to survive. Her body locked in position, every muscle tense with anticipation. Her ears were raked forward, almost painfully, screaming for the ball. I walked up the path, admiring the beauty of the scene. Validation was meaningless when compared to this, the excitement of the hunt and joy of success. I tossed her ball and the world exploded in fun. Even the trainers were whooping it up. It was as much a success for them and their efforts in preparing us as it was for the individual teams.
I let Fama keep her ball and walked back to the truck to get her some much needed shade and rest. The guys were all happy to see another dog return with a ball in it’s panting mouth. Fama jumped into her crate and got a drink of warm water. She was asleep within minutes of the door closing. The majority of the teams performed well that day. We had proven ourselves superior to the MPs, and it felt good to walk away winners, even if the MPs didn’t stick around to watch us work our dogs. We knew where we stacked up by comparison, so we were confident that we would all validate. How could SFC Shemp hold us back when we were outperforming his own dog teams? We would soon find out.
28 of the dog teams left to return to the states and turn their dogs back in to the kennel. These teams had either failed to validate, or taken so long to complete validation that their units were leaving Afghanistan and the dog teams were not needed. It cleared up a lot of space in the tent, which was nice, but it was also a sobering reminder of the challenge that still laid before us. We removed some of the bunks and wall lockers to give ourselves some additional space. It was also liberating to be back to the small group of friends that had been working together for months now. We could let our hair down and be ourselves.
I had quickly claimed a large space in the corner of the tent, using the wall lockers and some blankets to create a private room, allowing Fama free reign of our space while I was there. this helped her to calm down even more when we weren’t working. She could hang out on the bed with daddy and relax, chewing on a Nylabone or Kong to pass the time. The handlers dropped in on each other regularly for company, to play a practical joke, or to ask a question.
Scott popped his head in through the blanket that was serving as a door and dropped to a knee by my bed to inquire about what we were doing for training that evening. Fama , who had been snoozing behind me on the bed, launched over my legs to the floor and grabbed Scott by the shoulder. I grabbed her by the collar, scolded her, and stuffed her into her crate. Scott was wide eyed in fear and shaking after the incident. I apologized, feeling terrible about the behavior of my dog, and tried to help him understand that Fama was just surprised, and possibly felt threatened, so she reacted in defense.
I tried to get him to help me with the issue by working with Fama, but he didn’t feel safe around her. Fama could feel his unease, so she made a game out of messing with Scott and his dog Chatsi. Every time either of them would come close, Fama would bark and lunge, seeming to laugh as they would retreat in fear. Because she kept winning this contest, it was almost impossible for me to stop her behavior. Every time they walked by my room, Fama would “chase them off” by barking, therefore winning, no matter how stern a correction she received afterward. Scott and Chatsi quickly learned to avoid Fama all together, walking with wide berth around us whenever our paths crossed.
The next validation venue was another route clear on a long stretch of paved road with a huge ditch off to the left side. You could park a bus in the ditch and have room to walk around it without getting up on the road. After completing the venue, the handlers were to put up their dogs and come out to watch the remaining dog teams run. Fama and I were going last on this venue, so the rest of the handlers were following along behind us as we conducted the route clear. It was a physically demanding venue, as we had to climb in and out of the steep walled ditch multiple times to perform a thorough search. There were three hides placed on the route, and Fama had just found the second hide with little difficulty.
We had been working off leash, and Fama had just responded to a hide located down in the ditch. After getting her ball, she came racing back to me up on the road to continue the search. I got the ball away from her and sent her down the road, feeling confident about our performance. She ran down the road 25 yards, circled around to the right, ran right back past me, past the trainers, and right into the group of handlers that was observing from 10 yards behind us. At first, I thought she was just returning to the hide she had just found, trying to get her ball the easy way, but I soon realized she was on a different mission. With a sudden squirt of speed, she jumped into the crowd of handlers as they scattered. I was racing to my dog but it happened too fast for me to intervene. Fama had jumped on Scott’s back and taken him to the ground like LT on a quarterback.
I hit her at a sprint, tackling her while spewing a stream of expletives. Fama immediately went submissive, knowing that she was going to lose a fight with me in a bad way. She laid on the ground, looking up at me, waiting to see what I would do. I was at a loss. SFC Shemp was there, and technically it is against the rules to do any physical correction to your dog, especially any type of striking, no matter the circumstance. Fama needed a “Come to Jesus” talking to, but I was afraid of getting in trouble for getting physical with my dog, so I told her to stay, got up, and went to Scott to make sure he was OK.
SFC Shemp exploded in a tirade, berating me for not laying into Fama, essentially letting her get away with being aggressive. I had made the wrong decision by not correcting my dog, and I was afraid it was going to cost me my position as a dog handler.
“That dog is a liability. Somebody is going to get hurt. Winners just can’t control her, and I can’t let a team like that go down range and have a civilian get bit, no matter how good a detection team they are.”
I tried to explain my reasoning behind my failure to correct Fama. “I didn’t know how you would react if I really got on my dog, and I didn’t want to get in trouble for getting physical with her,” I explained.
“He knows how to handle Fama. I have seen it before, and they have come a long way in the last 3 months. I will personally vouch for his abilities as a handler,” said Gary, looking to me. “This won’t happen again, will it Sergeant Winners?”
“I can’t promise anything except that next time, she won’t be smiling afterwards,” I said.
I finished the training venue and put Fama up, feeling like I had let us down. I should have thought about the situation I put her in, with Scott walking behind us, and anticipated the reaction she might have. I could have kept her on the long line or suggested that Scott not follow us on the venue. Now, we were on the RADAR in a bad way, and I had to be careful or we would be finished as a dog team before we ever got to get started. Scott was more fearful than ever around Fama, and she was more cocky. She knew that she had his number and he wasn’t going to do anything about it. Understandably, Scott refused to help me work on the issue. He didn’t want anything to do with Fama.
In the afternoons, I started walking through the busy parts of the FOB, watching her closely for signs of aggression. Every time we walked by a person and she didn’t react, I would praise her and play some tug or give her a Kong. I was careful to stay at a distance where she wouldn’t react in a bad way so she would begin to associate strangers with a toy and praise and not a correction. We worked on this every day and it wasn’t long before she could ignore strangers all together and relax while we were walking. She was still reactive while we were stopped, occasionally barking at a passer by, especially if they were moving quickly. I was committed to helping Fama realize that it was not her job to fight.
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.
Validation was coming to a close. A decision was made by our Brigade to give the handlers that were showing promise more time to train instead of sending their dogs home. This took some pressure off the handlers, but also created an argumentative situation between the trainers, who were giving an honest assessment of the dog teams and forwarding that information up the chain of command, and SFC Shemp that was trying to torpedo the program at any opportunity. He would tell us that we were looking good and he just needed to see some consistency before he would validate us and release us to our units, while behind our backs, as well as unbeknownst to the trainers, he was sending negative reports to our Commanders.
I would report to my First Sergeant over the phone saying I was looking good and about to push forward to my unit, and he was informing me that in a meeting, he was told it was going to be at least another 2 weeks, and that SFC Shemp wasn’t convinced that I would be moving on with a dog at all. This was all news to me, and my trainers. Luchian was getting very upset, and started taking matters into his own hands, contacting our Brigade Commander and Provost Marshal, who is the guy in charge of all the Military Police and Working Dog teams. The argument reached the Pentagon, where the Sergeant Major that had certified our dog teams in Arizona was having to sort through the reports, good and bad, and make a decision about what course of action our program was going to take.
In the midst of all the controversy, we were still training twice a day, with SFC Shemp coming out occasionally to set up a venue and watch us run. We had heard from our trainers what was going on, so we were very reluctant to engage in conversation, or spend any time around SFC Shemp. Our anger and frustration gave us something to concentrate on, taking the focus from being worried about what this guy was going to think, and turning it into wanting to prove him wrong. We didn’t care what he thought of us anymore. We had worked with his MP dog teams enough to know that we put all of them to shame, and if he wanted to play dirty, we would just shove it in his face. He couldn’t continue to fail us if we were perfect. We wouldn’t give him the choice.
Gary and Luchian had set up 2 night-time training venues at a construction site on the other side of the FOB; a building search, followed by a route clear. We were to search a concrete block barracks building that was about half completed. All the walls and the second floor were in, but there was still construction materials and equipment laying around. The center of the building was open, so Luchian could see into the courtyard below from his post on the second floor, and observe the teams working while not being in the picture. The dogs learn that anytime the trainers are around they will soon be finding bombs, so the trainers wanted to see how we would work without that additional cue for the dog.
Fama and I approached the building, checking out the perimeter and learning as much about the interior of the building as possible before we began the interior search. The building consisted of 16 rooms on the ground floor, 8 down each side, with an open courtyard in the middle. The courtyard was being used as a storage area for pallets of concrete blocks, bags of cement, and piles of sand for making mortar. The rooms all contained small piles of materials, tools and clothing the workers had left for convenience. There were a lot of productive areas to search, and a plan was in order to minimize the chance of us missing something.
I decided we would work down the left side of the building, searching all the rooms, then cover the courtyard in the center, making sure to hit all the piles and pallets, and then complete the search with the rooms on the right side of the building. I had Fama sit and unhooked her leash, looping it around my shoulders and fastening it behind my back (as all the cool guy handlers do). She was more than ready to go, vibrating in anticipation. I smiled at the sight, blew her a quick smooch, and put her to work. She searched the doorway leading into the building and then proceeded inside.
I directed her into the first room on the left, waiting at the door while she did her search of the room. She quickly made a counter-clockwise circle of the room, checking up in the window on her way by, and came back to the doorway, at which time I stepped back and sent her into the next room. She did another quick but thorough search and exited the room in front of me, naturally heading in the same direction we had been moving. I was just getting ready to direct Fama through the next doorway when there was a loud crash just behind me, accompanied by a violent jerking under my feet. My heart lept into my throat, I peed a little, jumped 2 feet in the air, and turned around to see what the hell happened. Luchian, ever the prankster, had dropped a concrete block on a piece of plywood that was covering up a hole on the ground, while I was standing on it. The resulting noise was deafening. After taking a second to inventory all my important parts, I looked up to the second floor where Luchian was wearing his best Dennis The Menace grin.
“Hey buddy, where’s your dog?”
Oh yeah, my dog.
I looked into the room she was about to enter before I pissed on myself, and she wasn’t there. I checked the next room, and when Fama was not there, I called her name. There was no response. I was thinking Just great. Luchian scared the crap out of my dog, and she is half a mile away now, waiting for the attack to be over. Good luck getting her into a building any time soon. In my mind, the training venue was over. I just needed to find my dog. I kept calling “Fama, come here mama” and working my way through the building, checking in the rooms on the other side of the courtyard. I was afraid at what I might find; Fama, cowering in a corner or hiding behind a pile of lumber.
I stepped into the third room, and there she was, indicating on a hide, anxiously awaiting her ball. Relief washed over me and turned to giddiness. I stepped back out of the room and called her again, to see if she would break her sit and come to daddy. She never moved. All I could hear was the swishing of her tail increase when she heard her name. Luchian gave me a double thumbs-up and a big, proud smile. I tossed her ball, banking it off a wall to where she was sitting, and started the party.
Luchian couldn’t wait to tell the story. “I had this concrete block in my hands, just waiting for the perfect time to drop it, when you crossed that plywood. I figured it would make a hell of a racket, so I waited until Fama went into that room, and then dropped it. What I didn’t plan on was her catching odor at the doorway, so when I dropped the block, she was turning around to head across the courtyard after that hide. You missed it because you freaked out like a pansy, and turned around to talk to me. All the while, your dog worked her way to the room on the other side of the building and sat on the hide.”
Eat your heart out SFC Shemp.
After Luchian and I regaled each other with instant replays of the event, with me taking a beating for being a big pussy, Fama and I headed over to the route clear to find Gary and share the story. I knew he would get a good laugh out of it. Such merriment was not in the plans. SFC Shemp was standing next to Gary, with his arms crossed like Darth Vader deciding who he was going to choke to death with The Force, obviously arguing about something. Alex and Bruno were standing out on the venue, 25 yards from SFC Shemp’s truck, which was parked right next to the road we were to clear. I returned to Fama’s crate and put her up until it was our turn to run the venue.
Half an hour later, Alex returned with Bruno, looking concerned. At least Bruno had a ball in his mouth, so they had apparently found something. Alex didn’t have that talkative look on his face, so I got Fama out and headed up to the venue, where Gary was waiting for us.
“Just do the route clear, and pay your dog for anything she finds,” were his only instructions. His lack of banter struck me as odd, as Gary was never short of a smart word or silly comment to help the handlers be at ease while working. I skipped the story about Luchian and the concrete block, and put Fama to work off leash, searching the road and surrounding area as we headed towards the truck parked along side of the route. SFC Shemp had taken up position, standing in the bed of the truck, his arms still crossed, watching through critical eyes. As soon as Fama got downwind of the truck, her head snapped around in a beautiful change of behavior, and she started working the truck, with SFC Shemp in the back. When she got to the lowered tailgate, she jumped in the back of the truck and laid right at SFC Shemp’s feet, indicating on a black duffel bag. He didn’t respond in any way, so I walked to the back of the truck and tossed her ball, hoping that by some act of the Gods that he would get bit in the nuts in the process. No such luck.
Fama hopped from the bed of the truck and happily returned to me so we could finish the route clear. After we were finished with the venue, I inquired about the situation with Alex and Bruno that had taken place earlier. SFC Shemp had showed up at the training venue of his own accord, which was fine, but then insisted on parking his truck, which contained a bag of explosives, along side of the training venue. This normally wouldn’t be a problem, but he had parked in close proximity to another hide which was already placed in the ground before he showed up, and then refused to move his truck. When Bruno had responded to the big bag full of explosives in the back of the truck, and subsequently missed the buried hide, which was giving off much less odor, he called it a miss on the dog, at which time Gary verbally impaled SFC Shemp with a spear.
SFC Shemp dug in his heals, and refused to move his truck, so Gary dug up the training aid and continued the training venue, with the SFC pouting in the back of his truck, standing on the hide, which created a situation that our dogs had never trained for, which resulted in several of the handlers pulling their dogs away from the truck because they thought that their dogs just wanted to play with the guy in the back. SFC Shemp counted those occurrences as handler misses, going against the dog teams in their quest for validation. I approached him after the training venue was complete and tried to speak with him about the unfair treatment of our dog teams. He just got in his truck and drove away.
It worked it’s way down through the grapevine that the Sergeant Major was not happy with SFC Shemp, and had given him quite the dressing down over the telephone during a conference call. Gary came to us shortly after and let us know that Larry, John and Scott had all passed and were to get their bags packed. They were flying out in 24 hours to the real world, as bona fide dog handlers. This was great news for them, and the rest of us as there was now a visible light at the end of the tunnel.
We put our noses to the grindstone, working every day at being the best we could be. We trained every morning, and every evening, sometimes without a break in between venues, working through the night and into the early desert sun. The trainers would have us walk for hours, gobbling up miles, before coming to a venue and then going right to work, followed by another walk to a separate venue. We had to be ready to hit the mountains with our dogs, and be able to work after we got where we were going. Fama and I spent our mornings and afternoons in the gym, running side by side on treadmills.
Adam, my good friend and fellow handler, had begun going to the gym at the same time as Fama and I. His dog, Midnight, had taken well to running on the treadmill. Cycling is a passion for Adam, with him riding for up to a hundred miles around the island of Oahu on any given Saturday while not deployed. To say he is an elite athlete, with an intimate knowledge of the importance of physical training, is an understatement. Every day, we would exercise together with our dogs in the gym.
We were doing our normal workout, with Adam and Midnight running on treadmills next to Fama and I. We had been running for half an hour and we were in the zone, all 4 of us, when through the music in our earbuds, we heard a commotion. Then came the smell.
Midnight had relieved himself right on the track of the treadmill, which was moving at 7 miles per hour, effectively turning it into a manure spreader. It wasn’t even a nice firm log. The poo was flung all over the floor, which was covered in corrugated rubber mats with holes in them, and quickly covered the belt on the treadmill as Midnight continued to run, further spreading poo by flinging it from his feet onto every piece of equipment in the surrounding area. The treadmills were located right in front of a swamp cooler, so the fan was blowing Eau de Midnight through the whole gym. People were gagging and retching as they scrambled for the door.
Adam quickly apologized and began cleaning up the mess. He went through a whole roll of paper towels trying to get all the poo out of the floor mats. Fama and I just ran on in ignorance, hoping that he would learn to break his dog before going to the gym.
After our run, Fama and I would regularly go to an empty tent located next to our living quarters, that was an open area to work in, and thankfully in the shade. We would work on off leash obedience commands, including having her stay in a down position while I left the tent. I would walk out the door in one end, take my time circling around to the other end, and come in the door, rewarding her if she had stayed in the down position. As she got better at this exercise, I would take an increasingly longer time to make it to the other end of the tent, sometimes doing a full loop and coming in the door through which I had left.
Fama was in a down stay, which was her fourth of the day, and I was taking my sweet time getting back into the tent to reward her. I had just passed the door on the opposite end of the tent, deciding to make a full lap, when there was a commotion in the tent. Footsteps thundered on the plywood floor. A man was screaming in a way that men don’t normally scream, but Fama was oddly quiet. I ran down the outside of the tent to the far end, turning the corner just in time to see the door fly open and 2 soldiers, we will call them Bill and Ted, come barreling out into the sunshine, with a towel flying ahead through the air. Bill was obviously frightened, breathing rapidly and clutching his chest for comfort and dropping his toiletries bag, while Ted was laughing and poking fun at his friend. I looked in the door of the tent and Fama was still laying in her down stay, cocking her head side to side, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.
Ted explained that they had entered the tent, thinking to take a short cut to the latrine to take a shower. They were talking to one another and had failed to see the 70 pound German Shepherd laying in the middle of the floor. Bill, who was deathly afraid of dogs, walked right up on Fama as she was laying down. When he finally noticed her laying there, she looked up and bared her teeth at him, as he was inside her stranger bubble and wanted him to go somewhere else, at which time Bill let out a scream and fell down twice trying to get to the door. At Ted’s request, I went back in the tent and retrieved Bill’s flip flops, suggesting that they go around the tent from now on as I handed them back.
The days spent at Bagram turned into carbon copies of one another. Fama and I were leading a Groundhog Day existence. We would wake at the same time every day, head out to the break area and take a walk for an hour, conduct obedience training in the tent or the gravel lot across the street, take a break for lunch, continue with more obedience after lunch, head to the gym for a run, break for dinner and then train all night. I couldn’t even tell you what day of the week it was, because it didn’t matter. We were growing incrementally every day, progressing to off leash obedience in crowded areas and conducting more difficult searches during training. This continual progression was rewarding, but not fulfilling. We needed to get out there and make a difference. It had been weeks since we had even struggled on a training venue, let alone had a miss. Fama was back to her normal self while working, and I couldn’t understand why we were being held back.
I tried applying gentle but persistent pressure on Gary, joking with him several times throughout the day that we were going crazy, or needed a change of scenery. I would work on Luchian when we were watching other dog teams run venues, trying to make him understand that if we didn’t move on, we were going to start slipping through lack of stimulating challenges. Most of the training venues were generic, suitable for all the teams. Only occasionally would a challenging venue be set up for the more advanced teams that were further along in their training.
SFC Shemp had said that he wanted to see me, Alex and Kyle run a couple of venues, and if he liked what he saw, he was going to get us pushed forward to our units. The problem was that he would fail to show up at our training events. Gary would schedule training at a time when SFC Shemp said he was available, but he wouldn’t show up. We were all getting frustrated with the whole situation, and morale was starting to slide south. More often than not, when a group of soldiers was found talking among themselves, the topic was how we were being treated unfairly. Several of us had fired off emails to the “Powers That Be”, explaining the situation and pleading for a resolution to our situation. I’m not sure who it was, but somebody listened, and a certain SFC got his pee pee slapped.
SFC Shemp contacted Gary and requested to see the 3 dog teams that were ready at our earliest convenience. That equated to right f-word now. We loaded up the truck and headed to the rubble piles. This training location was an area 1 mile long and a 1/4 mile wide where they had dumped about 30 demolished concrete buildings. There were paths through the rubble that vehicles could drive down, with broken concrete and trash piled up on either side. It was a great and terrible place to train. Every step down the path presented a hundred places to hide a bomb and another hundred distracting odors for the dogs to deal with. Gary figured if we could operate in these conditions, we could operate just about anywhere.
SFC Shemp was waiting at the rubble piles, complete with a bag of bombs and a seriously cowed attitude. He wasn’t man enough to apologize, but the words would have been empty anyways. He and Gary set up a problem along the edge of the rubble piles, in a location that the wind played constant tricks on the dogs. I was happy to see them walk off in a direction that I knew would present a challenge. I wanted to prove myself beyond the shadow of doubt. I knew we were ready, Gary and Luchian had both said repeatedly that we were ready, and I wanted to hear it come from SFC Shemp’s mouth.
Gary called back to the group and asked for me and Fama. I harnessed my dog and walked confidently to the start point, noticing that Gary had a smile on his face, and SFC Shemp didn’t really want to meet my gaze. I listened to his brief of our mock operation and went right to work. I sent Fama down the path, making sure she was performing a complete search, but not moving down the road with her. I had it in my mind to show this guy what we were made of. I was going to run this venue in a way none of his dogs could, off leash at distance, with almost no handler direction. The only command I issued was OUT, to send her further up the road.
Fama would check back with me after 25 yards of searching, and I just kept pressing her down the road, confident that she wouldn’t miss anything along the way. She was at the top of her game, investigating and discarding every nook and cranny of the path, and happily working further and further down the road. Soon, she was 100 yards away on the left side of the road when she threw a change of behavior, her head coming up and testing the air from side to side. It wasn’t the huge head snap that she usually presented, but I knew she was on to something. I looked over to SFC Shemp and said, “She is on odor,” and walked over to a big piece of concrete, sat down, and pulled out a bottle of water, taking a long drink.
Fama and I had been through this a thousand times, and I knew that it would take her somewhere from 4 seconds to 3 days to find the bomb, but she didn’t need my help. She would work it out, or die from dehydration, those were the only 2 possible outcomes. It went back to knowing that she was better at this than I could ever be. I just waited.
The hide was a tricky one, which I was glad to see. The wind was swirling and pockets of odor were collecting in places where the wind was calm. She eventually worked her was across the road, where the wind was taking the odor down the path. She had seen it before, and we could all see the light bulb come on above her head. There was a raise in the terrain at the edge of the road, which was pushing the odor above her head, so when she neared the location of the hide, the odor would go away, leading her back to the center of the road. She climbed up to the 4 foot ledge and planted her sweet ass as soon as she got up there.
Randy Johnson couldn’t throw a ball that far, so the three of us walked down the road to where Fama was waiting. SFC Shemp didn’t have anything to say. I paid Fama and had a big party. She was zooming around the rubble piles, swooping by occasionally to punch me in the gut with her tennis ball. I wasn’t even particularly happy, but I felt justified. There were no nerves or sigh of relief, as when we passed certification in Arizona. All we were doing was what we did every day. SFC Shemp had gone from mentor to adversary to stepping stone. We were just checking the block, a necessary procedure to move on with our career together. Block checked.
We spent the next 3 days preparing for our trip to the FOB where my unit was located. Fama got one last Vet check-up which went well. I had to pack the mountain of gear I had brought with me, plus all the equipment, supplies and food Fama was going to require. Kyle and Alex had been validated as well, so the three of us were leaving Bagram together, stopping by Jalalabad on our way to our separate FOBs so we could drop our dog’s medical records off at the Vet that would be supporting us for the duration of our deployment.
The anticipation of the unknown was palpable. The pressure of passing the test was over, but it was replaced by the reality of looking for real bombs in the real world, where bad guys were going to be trying to kill us. The trainers had spent the past 3 1/2 months drilling into us just how dangerous our job was, and common sense definitely agreed with every word they said, but it was different now. The days of getting a second chance when you missed something were over. I laid in my bed for the last time, swimming in a sea of “What If?” I was about to walk down the road with a big “Follow Me” sign on my back. The lives of the soldiers behind me, my brothers whom I had laughed, cried, sweat and bled with, were my responsibility. What if?
I prayed that if anything ever happened, and someone was injured or killed, that it was me and not anyone else. I didn’t know how I could ever live with one of my brothers paying the price for my mistake. How could I face their mother, their wife, their children, and tell them that the person they loved the most had lost his life because I failed them. Fama was laying on the bed next to me, and I tried to come up with the words. I looked into her eyes and tried to tell her that her husband was dead because I wasn’t good enough. I struggled to get the words around the lump in my throat that would help her understand that I wished it was me instead.
Looking into her eyes, I realized that she had never volunteered for any of this. She was born and raised in Holland for just this purpose. Every moment in her life was dedicated to being in bad places, fighting bad men. Fama was only here for one reason, and she couldn’t understand that playing “Let’s Find the Bomb” could get her killed. Her naivety saddened me. I couldn’t help but picture her indicating on an IED along some random Afghan road, and suddenly getting blown into pink mist, not even knowing she was in danger. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying desperately to banish the image, but it kept coming back. Fama reached over and licked the tears off my face.
Luchian hauled us to the terminal in proper Military fashion, 6 hours before our plane was scheduled to take off. We placed all our gear on the familiar Air Force pallets and sequestered ourselves in a little corner of a fenced off area outside the building, sitting on the ground with our dogs at our sides. There was a steady supply of foot traffic around the terminal and the presence of 3 working dogs was drawing the animal lovers like moths to the flame. You could see their path of travel change so they would pass as close as possible to the dogs. I had Fama in her muzzle, just in case.
She was eying the passing soldiers with interest and disdain, but she remained calm. Every officer that passed would ask if they could pet the dogs.
We simply said “No Ma’am, they are working dogs, not pets,” or “Sorry, they are not friendly.”
The officers seemed to think that their rank protected them from the dogs. Some of them would just keep walking, saying something like, “It’s OK, dogs like me,” or “She looks so friendly.” Or my personal favorite, “It’s OK Sergeant, I have a German Shepherd at home.”
We would often have to get defensive with them to keep them away from the dogs. Some would even get upset about it, or try and sneak up while we weren’t looking to get a quick pet in, as if to prove us wrong. I was lucky Fama had her muzzle on. One particularly crafty female Captain waited until I was having a laugh with Alex, facing away from Fama, to make her move. She made it inside the stranger circle and Fama made her move, jumping with all her might, muzzle poised like a battering ram, aimed at the Captain’s chest. I had her leash double wrapped around my right hand, and thankfully, Fama had trained me well. At the smallest amount of pressure, my arm reacted automatically, jerking her back, sprawling across my legs in a flailing heap.
I looked up and recognized the Captain. “Ma’am, I told you twice that you couldn’t pet my dog, that she was not friendly and that if you tried, she would bite you!”
“Now Sergeant, there is no need…”
I stood up, cutting her off with a wave of my hand. “Yes, there is a need. You need to go somewhere else, or I’m going to take her muzzle off. We’ll see how you fare then…. Ma’am.”
She knew what the pause before the honorific meant (if you spend enough time in the military, you can make any word have 4 letters), but she backed down. I explained again that these were working dogs, and not pets. They had a job to do, and it didn’t include satisfying every pet lover’s want to give a dog affection. She took it pretty hard.
“I just miss my dogs so much, and she really looks sweet. I never thought she would have tried something like that.” It looked like she was going to start crying.
Alex said, “She was just luring you in with that sweet smile,” as he got up to take Bruno over to her and let her have a pet. Bruno was eating it up. He was bouncing around like a puppy and just about bowled her over a couple of times. The Captain didn’t care at all. She just needed to pet a dog, no matter what. Fama just came back over and laid down, looking at me, her smirk saying that she understood, and agreed.
Sometime later that night, we boarded the plane with Luchian, and after a short flight we reached Jalalabad Air Field, known better as JAF. Sergeant First Class (SFC) Sully crawled out of bed and brought his pick-up truck down to the flight line to help us move our gear and dogs to a B-Hut (a wooden shack 24′ x 24′) where we would be spending the next 4 days. After several trips, we had all our gear inside and he was giving us a rundown of the FOB and quick directions to the chow hall and the latrines. SFC Sully had been an MP for 17 years, and was very familiar with working dogs. He spent some time playing with Bruno and Griff while he was talking to us. Then the inevitable happened. He asked to meet Fama, who was watching him intently from her crate.
“She’s not really friendly,” said Luchian.
SFC Sully put his I-have-been-in-the-Army-a-long-time-and-there-is-nothing-you-can-tell-me-that-I-don’t-already-know look, and said, “I have been around some working dogs in my time. Just let her come say Hi. If I get bit, it’s my own damn fault, and I know that.”
Luchian and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. I opened the crate and put Fama’s leash on, letting slack out as she pulled her way to SFC Sully. Her tail was wagging, and she investigated him with her nose as he petted her head. They were standing right by a cot, and Fama put her front feet up so she could get a little closer to the tasty bits. SFC Sully had been petting her on the sides of her head and under her chin, which she was tolerating, but when she elevated herself on the cot, he put his hand on top of her head. I was watching closely and saw her switch flip from nice to naughty, so I was already in the process of jerking on the leash when she grabbed his arm. It was a lightening quick move that was stopped short by the leash correction, but not short enough. She had nipped his forearm on the way out.
I gave her another, much firmer leash correction, gave her a loud “Foei” and tossed her in her crate. All this happened in humming bird time, so SFC Sully was still trying to figure out what had just happened.
“I’m sorry Sergeant. We tried to tell you she wasn’t friendly, but you insisted.”
“I’m glad it happened to me and not someone who doesn’t understand these dogs. No one pets your dog. Do you understand that Sergeant? I don’t want to see a report of a soldier getting injured out on your FOB because you fail to control your dog. I understand that sometimes things happen that you can’t control, but you don’t let anybody talk you into letting you pet that dog like I just did. You should have just said no. She is your responsibility, and you have to stick up for yourself, no matter who is doing the asking. Do you understand me?”
“Yes Sergeant,” was the only reply I could give. He was right.
SFC Sully had a good head on his soldiers. He was testing me, not my dog. He didn’t care if she would bite people. He wanted to see if I would let it happen, and sure enough, I did. I was thankful for the lesson. I had to remember that no matter how high another soldier’s rank was, no one outranked me when it came to my dog.
We spent 4 days in Jalalbad, attending administrative briefings, going through a quick check up with the new vet, meeting the upper chain of command and training. Luchian was setting up more complicated training venues simulating
real world scenarios as closely as possible. He was also evaluating the dogs in a new environment to see if we were going to need to train through any problems when we finally got out on our own.
Fama was much calmer in the B-Hut compared to in the tent back on BAF. There were only 2 other dogs in there, Griff and Bruno, and she got along well with them and their handlers. This equated to more sleep, a calmer attitude in general, and more energy in training. All the dogs were performing well, and the handlers were enjoying the more relaxed lifestyle of being in a smaller group. The change of scenery was uplifting, as the mundane training cycle in the the same old locations was replaced by something new and challenging.
Fama and I were going to the gym everyday to get our afternoon run in. Up until that time, no military dogs had been running on the treadmills, so it was always a spectacle when we entered the gym. By this time, Fama knew the routine and would gladly run on the treadmill with no leash or guidance from me. I would just walk up and start the machine once she had gotten into position. This never failed to draw spectators, asking if they could take pictures or wondering how far she could run. They always seemed surprised when they found out she could run for an hour for a total of 7 miles. All this attention, having people around while she was actively entertained and focused on something else, was helping Fama to be more comfortable around strangers.
I started taking Fama to Green Bean, the deployment version of Starbucks, just to hang out and work on her socialization. There were several couches and comfortable chairs inside where patrons would relax and read or watch television. I would push a chair into a corner and place the coffee table in front of Fama, creating a barrier to protect the innocent and to help her feel comfortable. I always had a pocket full of duck jerky and a tug with me, so I could reward her for being good when people would pass by.
By the second day, she was not reacting to strangers at all inside Green Bean, so I removed the coffee table and let her have a little freedom. I would caution people as they came near not to pet her, or get too close. Thankfully, people were more interested in what we were doing than giving Fama attention that she really didn’t want. I answered dozens of questions while we were enjoying our coffee, and just let Fama adjust to being calm around strangers.
We also spent a lot of time just walking around. JAF is a busy FOB during the day, with hundreds of people going
about their daily tasks. This offered us the opportunity to move among a crowd of people that were concentrating on their jobs, not the dog. We went for walks all around the FOB, experiencing new sights and sounds at every turn. I would direct Fama up onto piles of lumber and bunkers build out of slippery sand bags to increase her confidence. We would hang out on the flight line by the helicopters so she got used to the sound and rotor wash, something that scares many dogs.
The training venues were the most challenging we had done to date. We were searching groups of buildings, moving tactically through the area as if we were on a real mission. The dogs were expected search for longer periods, and in diverse situations, such as near traffic or the airfield, or in a lot where construction workers were actively building a structure with all their noisy equipment. Hides were placed in occupied guard towers and on vehicles that were still hot from recently being driven. I would place a hide on a path and then just walk by with Fama, giving her no indication that she was to be searching, to make sure that her nose was turned on all the time. She never failed to respond because she was busy thinking about something else. My trust in Fama was at an all time high.
Luchian arranged for us to take a short introductory flight in an old Huey helicopter to see how the dogs would react so he could help us train through any problems now, instead of during a mission. The pilots and crew were very welcoming to the dogs, and gave us all the time we needed to practice boarding the aircraft. Then they started the engines and waited until we were satisfied that our dogs were all calm before taking off.
Upon takeoff, all the dogs stood up and were very interested in what was going on, jockeying for position at the windows so they could see out. The flight was kept smooth until the dogs had again settled down. Fama laid down at my feet and closed her eyes. I think the sound and vibration of the bird was soothing.
Once the dogs had settled, Luchian asked the pilots to ramp up the excitement. They started to wag the tail and tip the bird from side to side, with little or no response from the dogs. They kept increasing the motion of the bird, adding small episodes of negative G force, where the dogs would feel light on the floor. Fama, Bruno and Griff were taking it much better than the handlers. Nobody was losing their lunch, but we weren’t very comfortable. For his final maneuver, the pilot put us an a pretty heavy (for us, not fighter pilots) negative G fall, and Fama came off the ground. She was looking around, floating in the air in front of me with her feet hanging, relaxed as if she had done this a hundred times before, 5 inches off the ground.
The pilot pulled out of the dive and proceeded to fly us back to the airfield, where we exited the helicopter on somewhat shaky legs. None of us had ever been on a helicopter where the pilot was intentionally messing with the passengers. If you ever get the chance, you have to do it. It makes the meanest roller-coaster seem like a kiddy ride. We laughed and recounted events of the ride all the way back to the B-Hut, poking fun at each other in that soldierly way. We would soon be taking a much more serious helicopter ride, to our individual FOBs.
Fama and I were waiting for our helicopter on the flight line. Luchian was keeping us company, and flirting with Heather, the woman in charge of the helicopter loading area. I didn’t blame him. She was cute.
Our bird landed. With the help of the pilots we managed to get all our gear on board, and Fama and I hopped into the passenger compartment. I was excited and nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got to FOB Kahn (not the real name). The rest of my unit had been there since we had left for school, so I was going to be a bit of an outsider.
Groups of friends form quickly during deployment. On top of that, I was going to be the only dog handler there, so we would be living separately, and no one really knew what my job was except me. I had heard from my buddies that they had been doing a lot of patrols through the mountains, which was something we had never had the opportunity to train. I had a case of the pre-game jitters. Fama was asleep before we took off.
Fama made sure to establish her reputation as soon as we got to FOB Khan. We were coming in on approach and she felt the helicopter slowing down, so she got excited. It was time to go. I put her muzzle on to be safe and got ready to get out of the bird. They don’t like to stay on the ground any longer than necessary. The pilot slid the door on our side open and we hopped out onto the concrete helipad. There was a group of people there to welcome us, including my Sergeant Major and my First Sergeant. The pilot moved past us to unload our gear and Fama muzzle punched him in the right thigh. The pilot jumped back in surprise and froze. I corrected Fama with the leash and pulled her in close so the pilot felt safer. I approached him to apologize and noticed he was laughing. The pilot explained that he and the co-pilot had a bet going on whether or not he would get bit this time. Apparently all the working dogs liked to try and get a piece of this particular pilot. I suggested that he stop using meat tenderizer for deodorant.
We shook hands and wished each other good luck as he got back in the bird. Fama and I turned to walk off the helipad and I noticed our welcoming committee had taken 10 steps back, and they were all eyeing Fama with caution. I walked a safe distance away so the bird could take off and put Fama in a down, telling her to stay. I came back to the group and shook everyone’s hand and passed out some extremely macho hugs. All my worries were gone. This was my second family, and I was finally coming home. They loaded all our equipment up on a gator and escorted Fama and I to our new B-Hut.
We got settled in and headed up to see the 1SG (First Sergeant) so he could give us the nickel tour. I could tell he was quite uncomfortable around Fama after her display with the pilot. She was without muzzle and excited to be checking out the new place. He kept an eye on her the whole time we were walking around. It was actually a nice break from the typical necessity of keeping everyone away from her. FOB Khan was not big, but it had all the necessities. It was definitely better than where I had spent my deployment to Iraq, so I was happy.
We headed back to the house and got all set up for our 9 month stay. The B-Hut was divided down the middle with a hallway made of 6 foot high walls, and each side was divided into 5 rooms. They had removed one of the divider walls so we had a double sized room. I put Fama’s crate in the corner and all my extra gear in one of the other rooms so we had plenty of space for activities. Fama was watching from the bed as I unpacked my laptop computer when someone knocked on the door.
Without making a sound, Fama jumped off the bed, bounced off the floor, sprang off the top of her kennel over the wall, and landed in the hallway, facing the door. She only barked when she realized the door was still shut. I turned around just in time to see her tail disappear over the wall. It was like watching a Disney movie and having Ron Jeremy run across the screen naked. My mind had trouble sorting it all out for a second. That couldn’t have just happened. I yelled “Stay Out” so whoever was knocking didn’t get a face full of German Shepherd as they opened the door. I called Fama back into our room and put her in her crate and called “Come in.” No one opened the door so I called again. There was still no response, so I went to the door and looked out. My buddy Fran was standing all the way across the open space between the rows of B-Huts with his hand on the door, ready to hop in for a fast escape.
“What do you need buddy?” I asked.
“Where is that damn dog?”
“She is in her crate. You’re safe.” I couldn’t help but smile.
“If you say so. First Sergeant needs to see you. Without your dog.”
The big 3 0
1SG wanted to let me know that he was proud of me for doing well in school, and that it was about time that I got my ass in the fight with the rest of the guys. I had already prepared a tentative schedule for Fama and I, dividing our time between the 2 patrol teams, FOB security, and the other units on the FOB who worked primarily at at border crossing that was in our AO (Area of Operations, basically our turf). This worked out in my favor, as it didn’t give anyone a chance to get in there and micromanage us. I was still a little apprehensive about exactly what our capabilities were in the terrain we would be working in. The FOB was surrounded by mountains, and they stretched in every direction as far as they eye could see.
First Sergeant looked over my schedule, looked over my uniform, and looked over my shoulder as Smoke walked in the room. Smoke (the Artillery name for a Platoon Sergeant, who is directly under the 1SG) had been my boss since I joined the Army. He was my Section Chief when I was a Private, my Truck Commander during my Iraq deployment, my mentor, and my friend. He slapped me on the shoulder, hard. He’s a pretty big guy.
“It’s about time you got out here. How you been man?” he asked.
“Pretty good Smoke. That dog school is no joke, but we made it. We’re ready to go to work. I gave 1SG a schedule. I hope it’s OK that I put myself on some of your patrols.”
“Anytime man, you’re always welcome. We’re glad to have you. It hasn’t been the same without you here,” he smiled. We had a lot of fun in Iraq during our downtime, me and Smoke.
First Sergeant cleared his throat. He wasn’t too happy about us having a reunion in his office.
“Well, it seems you have a handle on things. As far as I’m concerned, you are in charge of you, and Adam too, if he ever gets here. Don’t make me regret this, because if you do, you’re not going to like the alternative plan of action. Are we clear Sergeant Winners?”
“Roger Top (nickname for 1SG) I got this under control.”
“You better. And another thing; you keep a handle on that dog,” said 1SG.
Smoke and I looked at each other, and excused ourselves from the office.
“So where’s your dog?” he asked. “I hear she tried to bite the pilot when you guys got here. Everybody is talking about him like he’s Cujo or something.”
“He’s a she, and yeah, she can be a bit of a bitch, but we’re working on it. she’s getting better every day,” I said.
Smoke got a big smile on his face. “This is going to be fun.”
“You know it Smoke, just like old times, right. You done with me? I gotta brief the Colonel and Sergeant Major, and finish unpacking.”
“Go ahead man. Take it easy, and let me know if you need anything. Anybody gives you any trouble you just send ‘em my way,” he said. It was always a comfort to know that Smoke had my back.
“Thanks Smoke. See you later.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to the Colonel and SGM, then the rest of the unit Commanders. I briefed them all on our capabilities and limitations, and let them know where I thought Fama and I could fit into current operations and FOB defense. I also invited them to come watch us train so they could see how we worked, how fast we could travel, and what we were capable of. Everyone agreed with my plan, probably because they didn’t want to take the time to make another one, and sent me on my way with a promise to come see us train. Mission accomplished. I was my own boss, I was guaranteed to get plenty of work without being stretched too thin, and I could work my way into operations as I got a better feel for how things were going.
I headed back to the house and picked up some training aids, my GPS unit and a shovel. There was a road running right behind the B-Hut that continued up the mountain, along several switch-backs, up to an OP (Observation Post) that was on top of the mountain. It looked like quite a hike, and that is exactly what I was after. I needed to see if we could effectively work on the side of a mountain, so up the road I went, flicking the GPS to life as I jogged up the hill. I stopped a full mile later, out of breath, sweating and cursing myself for not grabbing a bottle of water. I wasn’t to the top yet, but I figured this was close enough. I was going to have to make the trip up the hill twice after all. I buried a hide and started the return trip, burying 2 more hides along the way.
I opened Fama’s crate and she came out, giving a big stretch and hopping up on my shoulders for a big Fama hug. I grabbed her harness and she lit up like fireworks, barking and hopping around. She jumped up and raked her paw down my face, leaving 4 scratches on my right cheek. “Thanks Fama.” I get her calmed down and in her harness, picked up a pair of tennis balls and 2 bottles of water, looped her leash around my shoulders and headed out the door.
The B-Hut right across from ours was occupied by some civilian contractors that worked in the chow hall. They had congregated in front of their B-Hut, laughing and talking with one another, until Fama bolted out the door. When I talked to 5 guys that were standing there later, none of them would admit to screaming like a little girl, but one of them let out an impressive squawk. Fama stopped and looked over her shoulder, a smile playing across her face. “Look what I did Daddy.”
We headed up the hill to see what we were made of. The first part of the road ran behind the motorpool, which is the Army version of a parking lot. I had her search all the vehicles before we moved on. Further up the hill was a row of shipping containers running down both sides of the road. We searched all the containers and pressed on up the hill. Fama had never worked so long without finding a hide before, but she wasn’t bothered. She was responding to direction well and moving with great speed and purpose, seeming unaffected by the steep terrain. The first hide was located off the side of the road and down the hill in some loose rock. Fama threw a change of behavior and headed off the side of the road at a trot.
Something I had not considered when I planted the training aid was the loose stone, and when she turned around to locate the hide, she started sliding down the hill. Her focus was all on the hide, and she was trying desperately to get to it, but the harder she struggled the more she slid, her back feet slinging rocks down the hill behind her. I tried to call her up on the road in vain. I had been training her to ignore me when she was on odor for months now. She was not about to leave this aid for Daddy, so I had to head down to help. I went down the hill slowly, as to not slide like Fama was, and worked my way around behind her, eating gravel and dust the whole time. She was holding he place now, but she couldn’t get up the hill to the hide. She was just spinning her wheels. I reached up and put my hands behind her back feet for traction. Fama immediately jumped 5 feet up the hill and continued the effort. I worked my way up behind her again, repeating the process and she made it to the aid and laid down, her tail beating me in the face in excitement. I managed to get a ball out of my pocket and toss it up on the road. After swallowing another bucket of dust, I made it back up on the road with my dog. Note to self; always consider the terrain.
We finished the problem without a hitch. Fama had a blast, and had enough energy left at the top of the hill to play fetch all the way back to the house. I left her crate open and locked the B-Hut when I went to dinner and got a much needed shower. I came back and she was sprawled out on the bed. I get her dinner and brushed her out, doing my health checks. We laid on the bed together watching a movie until we fell asleep. It was so nice to not have to worry about anybody but us. No hyper dogs barking, no Privates poking their head in my room to ask a question they already knew the answer to, no trainer asking to see me to plan training for the next morning. Fama was relaxed and content with her head on my stomach. It was everything I had hoped for, and more. We had made it.
0400 came early on the morning of our first mission, but I wasn’t sleeping anyways. I got a shower, checked my gear, gave Fama her breakfast, checked my gear, got dressed, checked my gear, went to chow, checked my gear, and took Fama to our first patrol brief. It was held in the Battalion conference room, complete with a Power Point Presentation. I took Fama to the brief, as I was accustomed to leaving on the patrol directly after the brief. We showed up in full kit, ready to jump in the trucks and go. Nobody else had their gear on. I guess I was a little overeager.
The conference room was dominated by a huge wooden table in the middle, surrounded by 2 rows of chairs, one up against the table, and one against the wall, with an aisle in between the 2 rows of chairs. I sat in the outside row of chairs with Fama laying on the floor at my feet. Garrett, one of my soldiers when I was a Section Chief, sat in the chair directly across the aisle from me. We spent some time before the brief engaged in friendly conversation. He mentioned that he heard about Fama going after the pilot when we got to FOB Kahn, and I told him a little about her reactivity, and that we were a work in progress.
The LT (Lieutenant) went through his 30 minute brief on the upcoming mission and finished by asking me to brief the patrol team on how Fama and I work, and how we would be fitting into the mission. I gave a quick and dirty rundown on what I needed from the patrol team, and what we could offer them. Everyone was attentive and they asked a few questions when I was finished. The LT clapped his hands loudly and said, “Break,” signifying the end of the brief. Garrett stood up suddenly, along with everyone else in the room, stretching with his arms out to the side. His chair rolled backwards sharply and hit Fama in the legs. The combination of the hand clap, Garrett’s sudden movement, and the chair running into her set Fama off. She lunged up, nipped Garrett’s outstretched arm, and went right back to the down position before anybody knew what happened.
Garrett yelled, “WTF!” He didn’t even really know what happened. He turned around when he saw me punishing Fama.
“I’m sorry man. Your chair hit her when you stood up. Are you OK?”
Garrett rolled up his sleeve and there was a mark on his arm, but thankfully he wasn’t bleeding.
“I’m fine Sergeant,” he said, but his face said he was still pretty angry.
I felt terrible about the incident. It wasn’t really her fault, because she was provoked. I shouldn’t have allowed the situation to happen. It was only a couple of days since SFC Sully had talked to me about my responsibilities with my dog, and I had already made a big error in judgement, and now the whole patrol team was scared of my dog. We had our work cut out for us. Because we had an important job to do, and making friends was not even in the top 5 on our priority list, it was going to take some time.
I put Fama’s muzzle on and headed down to the motorpool where the guys were getting the trucks ready for the mission. Everyone was keeping their distance from Fama until they noticed the muzzle. I was trying to put everybody at ease, myself included, and get Fama used to being around this group of people and their equipment. They also had to get used to us being around. They couldn’t afford to be thinking about Fama when we were on patrol. they had more important things with which to occupy their time.
Many of the guys came up, but not too close, and asked questions. They were very interested, but cautiously so. The only one that seemed at ease was Jeff. He was a Military consultant, working as a contractor on our FOB. He had 26 years experience on a big city police force, and was a member of all the tactical entry and maritime teams (think SWAT). He had been around a number of working dogs before and knew how to act. He made sure I was between Fama and his soft parts.
“I’ve got German Shepherds at home…” here we go again I thought, “… but nothing like her. She’s a beautiful dog, but she doesn’t even look remotely friendly. I don’t think I want to mess with her until she gets to know me.” Smart guy.
Fama was all business. Everything that moved was immediately scrutinized and placed into categories. She either wanted to f$*% it, kill it, eat it, or discard it. Sometimes things fit into all 4 categories, probably in that order. She was laying at my side, quiet as a mouse, but her head never stopped moving. She was taking everything in and processing it all at hyper-speed. My Battery Commander came out to wish us well on our first mission. He fell into the last category, so she moved on to other targets.
“Wow. She’s really intense. It doesn’t look like she misses much. Is she always that alert?” he asked.
“No sir. Just when she’s in her harness. She will calm down with the guys after she gets to know them. I screwed up and let Garrett get bit this morning. I should have come to your office and told you, but I decided to get her out here with the guys so she could start getting used to them.”
“Does he still have all his appendages?” he asked.
I laughed, “Yes Sir. He’s doing just fine. I don’t think he’s going to be hanging out in my room with Fama any time soon, but he’s not injured. Just a scratch.”
“Then don’t worry about it. S#it happens. Good luck out there, and make sure you let me know if you need anything. If you are doing missions for any of the other units, make sure you let me know ahead of time and let me de-conflict any scheduling issues you may have. Your dog is too important an asset to have her laying around in her kennel. Get out there and use her.”
Music to my ears. “Roger that Sir. I’ll keep you in the loop and let you know how it’s going. I’m easing into things right now, just to see how she adjusts to the new terrain and all the new people. When I think we are ready, we will ramp it up and stay as busy as we can, while still having time to train.”
“Sounds good. Stay safe,” he said, walking back to his office.
The LT walked up to the trucks, giving the “circle-wagons” sign and yelled, “Let’s go.”
Fama and I walked to the back of our assigned truck with the three other lucky contestants that drew the short straw. One of which was Jeff. The driver dropped the ramp and Fama just went crazy. She was barking, pulling, spinning in circles; she wanted in that truck, and right now. The rest of the guys looked at me and I gave them the go-ahead to get in first. If she was this nuts, I wanted her in the far back of the truck with me blocking her way to the rest of the guys. Jeff was the last up the ramp before it was our turn. The back of the MRAP didn’t have enough room for Fama and me to go through the door side by side, and I didn’t want her to injure her feet pulling her way up the ramp on the expanded metal grating, so I let her up the ramp ahead of me and hoped for the best.
She flew into the back of the truck in a storm of barking and growling and bumped Jeff 4 or 5 times with her muzzle before I got her turned around so she was facing the ramp. Jeff reflexively jerked his arm away from Fama as she tried in vain to bite him. He just laughed.
“Don’t worry about it Sergeant. No harm, no foul,” he said.
I was relieved. I have the all clear sign and the driver raised the ramp, to a chorus of warbling wails from Fama. I had to hold onto her collar to keep her from attacking the ramp. I just sat in my seat and held onto her until the ramp was closed. I didn’t want to risk giving her a hard enough correction to stop her and shutting her down bad enough that she wouldn’t work when we got out of the truck. As soon as the ram was up, Fama immediately laid down and put her head on the floor, as if her batteries fell out. What a crazy bitch.
The patrol pulled out of the FOB and headed down the road to our destination. It was only a few miles away, so the ride was short. Jeff and I talked the whole way there about the village we were going to, and what I could expect when we got there. He wanted to stick with us to see how the people reacted, and to help the younger guys adjust to the new situation. Jeff was a real pro. We were lucky to have a guy with his experience on the team.
As we approached the village, rocks started bouncing off the truck. Kids are the same everywhere. Fama looked around a bit when the first few hit the truck with a loud “gong”, but soon settled back into a restful state. As we pulled off the road, I double checked all my equipment, loaded a round in the chamber of my M9 and double checked the safety, tapped the button on the top of my GPS to make sure it was operational and hooked the long line up to Fama’s harness. I could see a swarm of kids running toward the trucks, looking for handouts of water and candy. 30 seconds before they were throwing rocks, and now they wanted free stuff. The truck stopped and Fama stood up, waiting for that evil gate to make a move. I took her muzzle off and strapped it in it’s location on my kit. The driver yelled “Clear” and dropped the ramp. Fama exploded just as before while the ramp was making it’s way to the ground. As soon as it stopped, I let her have some slack on the long line and we stepped into Afghanistan.
There was a bubble of space around us. The villagers were very interested in Fama, but didn’t want anything to do with getting inside leash range. They were all talking in excited tones with lots of arm flinging and pointing, which Fama didn’t appreciate at all. She lunged to the end of the leash repeatedly. The sound of her teeth snapping was audible over the commotion. The two soldiers assigned as my security detail were getting a kick out of the situation.
“I sure like having your dog around,” said Justin.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Usually the villagers would be mobbing us right now, especially the kids. They always want us to give them water and candy. We always bring some stuff to hand out, but they are never satisfied and they get nasty when you run out of stuff to give them. They even try taking stuff off your kit if you don’t watch them,” said Justin.
“Well, I don’t think you have to worry about anybody getting that close as long as you stick with Fama.”
She started to calm down when she figured out that she wasn’t going to get to bite anybody. I reeled her in to walk just in front of me as we approached the house of the village elder, whom the LT had a meeting with. I stopped right in front of the door and waited for the LT to speak with the old man. He asked where the meeting was to take place, and the elder pointed to an outbuilding behind the house that was a warehouse with 3 sides walled in. There were 2 trucks backed up to the warehouse and several laborers were unloading bags of green tea, called chai.
As we were standing by the doorway, Fama started to show some interest in the inside of the house. I didn’t think anything of it at first. I assumed she saw someone walking around, or maybe a chicken, but after a minute passed and she was still showing interest in the doorway, I let some slack out of the long line, allowing her to get her nose inside the doorway. The village elder jumped back into the house, obviously afraid of Fama, and began talking in heated tones. The interpreter said that the dog was a filthy animal and the elder didn’t want her inside the house.
In the midst of the translated conversation going on between the LT and the elder, Fama went into tractor pull mode. She was on odor, and wanted in the house. The LT was starting to backpedal in the conversation, apologizing to the elder for the behavior of the dog. Jeff had walked up and realized what was going on, and that Fama was on odor.
Jeff interrupted the conversation. “Hey LT. We’re going in that house. I don’t care what the old guy says.” He looked at the interpreter and said, “You tell him to get his people out of the house right now and we are going in with the dog. If he doesn’t like that, Winners, Fama and I are going in there to convince them.”
Through the whole heated conversation, I was watching they old guy, and what I could see of the inside of the house, for anything out of the ordinary. Things go bad quickly sometimes. I backed up away from the door and had Fama perform a quick sweep of the exterior of the house.
After the terp (interpreter) explained the situation to the old man, he quickly called to his family, and they soon started filing through the door to stand in a group outside, where they would be questioned by the intel guys. After our perimeter sweep, Fama and I came back to the door. I asked the terp to confirm that the house was empty. The old guy nodded his head, quickly returning to his complaints. I tuned out the rest of the world and tried to concentrate on the task. There was a range of emotions trying to pull me in different directions. I was excited to have a potential find on our first mission, but nervous about what that find may be. Part of me wanted to charge in and see what was in there, but the other part wanted to call EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and let them walk in that door.
I brought Fama up along side the door and put her in a down so I could assess the situation inside the house. She reluctantly complied. She didn’t have any compunctions about going in the door at all. I did my visual scan of the room, hearing Heath’s voice in my head as I scrutinized the area. Door, floor, left to right, right to left, ceiling. Nothing was out of the ordinary for a relatively affluent household in the middle east. There were rugs covering the concrete floors with pillows strewn about the room for sitting or laying comfortably, and hutches against the walls, holding what ornamentation the family could afford.
After checking to be sure that the guys had set up a perimeter around the house, and that everything was under control, I looked down at Fama. She was locked onto me, waiting for the signal to start the search. I reached down and patted her head, to her annoyance, and whispered, “Be safe mama.” I gave her the search command and she launched into action. After she was finished checking the doorway, I let her have some slack and stepped to the side of the doorway, reaching into the room with my left hand to control the leash, placing the stone wall of the house between me and anything that went boom inside the house. I held my breath and closed my eyes as Fama searched the room. My heart was beating against the bullet proof plate on the inside of my armor; my breathing forced. Mr. Adrenaline had definitely joined the party.
I pictured Fama working as I felt her movement through the leash. She had reached the far corner of the room and was working he way back toward the door. I was reeling in the slack as to keep a small bit of tension on the leash when she quickly changed direction and took more line. This was it. I had felt that move dozens of times. She had it in her nose, and was about to respond. I came out of my Avatar state and motioned for everyone to get down, following my own advice. The leash stopped. I called to Fama to see if she would come to the door, meaning she hadn’t found anything. The only sound was her tail thumping against the floor. I stood up and motioned to Jeff that she had found something.
Mr. Adrenaline had been joined by Dr. Pucker. I looked in the door to find Fama indicating on a tall cupboard next to the door into what appeared to be the bedroom. I pulled my drop hide from my pocket and tossed on the ground 10 yards away from the house, and then pulled out a ball to lure Fama out into the yard. It took a few tries to get he to look over to me, but when she saw the ball, she came racing out of the house. I asked her to search the spot where I had placed the small bag of black powder. She found it immediately and I paid her.
I put Fama on the 6′ leash, and found the LT to let him know what was going on. I had to explain, for the second time, that I couldn’t tell him what type of substance she had found, or the quantity of that substance. He made the call to have us investigate the cupboard. A team entered and cleared the house, to be sure no one was hiding, and inspected the exterior of the cupboard. After finding nothing suspicious, they opened the cupboard. I was watching with great anticipation through the door from the front yard. I saw a hand go in, and an AK47 come out, along with a pile of magazines full of ammunition.
A density that had been in the air suddenly was lifted, and I let out the breath I had been subconsciously holding. It was a good find. My baby girl had done her job. Nobody got hurt. Everyone was happy. It was legal for them to have the rifle and ammunition, so the family was thanked for their cooperation, given a case of water, and left to go on about their business. Fama and I searched the warehouse where the meeting was to take place, and the vehicles that were in the immediate area.
While milling about waiting for the meeting to conclude, I noticed that the worried consternation with which everyone had been looking at Fama had changed to pride and interest. She kept the demanding villagers at bay, provided a source of interest for the villagers besides the soldiers, and had located a weapon from outside a house. This mission was a big step in the direction of acceptance. Fama got thumbs up and calls of “Good Girl” from the guys on the way back to the trucks. The patrol team was seeing what an asset we could be. Jeff was full of compliments when we got back in the truck, even after Fama tried to bite him through her muzzle again.
“Before this deployment is over, I’m gonna pet that dog, and she’s gonna like it,” he said.
“We’ll see about that,” I smiled. I was a proud Daddy.
To be continued …
Thank you to David Winners for writing this amazing story and sharing Fama and their adventures with us!
The Department of Defense only allowed David to release the first 32 episodes and are requiring him to rewrite the remaining 15 episodes.
Hopefully they will be available in the near future!