Army PFC Sadie Vollendorf and her dog, Ricky, pose with Spc. Michael Finochio and dog Izmos outside the Fort Belvoir Kennels. (Image courtesy of Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Darien Kenney/Released)
We’ve all seen photos and videos of service members wearing those giant puffy suits getting chased down by military working dogs, right?
I was offered a chance to take a turn in that suit. At first, I was pumped to do it. But I quickly changed my mind when I saw Army Spc. Michael Finochio get taken down — hard.
After initially being trained as puppies at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the dogs of the 947th Military Police Detachment are further disciplined in patrol explosive and narcotics detection, as well as specialized searching. While they’re based in the National Capital Region, they’re sent wherever their assigned dignitaries go.
“We could be overseas on the flip of a dime, anywhere where POTUS, the first lady, vice president, or any other dignitaries that might have the request in for explosives support,” said Army Staff Sgt. Hector Gabriel Rodriguez, the plans and operations sergeant for the detachment.
While some of the detachment is located at Fort Myer in Virginia, the majority of the training is done at the Fort Belvoir kennel. The dogs are required to train four hours a week, so they go out every day and practice the six phases of controlled aggression at the kennel’s basic obedience course. That includes responding to commands, jumping hurdles and running up ramps and through confined spaces. And, of course, the dog bite training you see in the photo above.
For specialized search training — known as scouting — the dogs are sent into the woods to train. Others do searches across the base on roadways, in warehouses and in vehicles to keep up their skills.
“It helps them work better through the environments that they’re in to actually sniff out for the explosives,” Rodriguez said.
When they’re working on explosives detection, the dogs learn to sniff out various odors like C4 explosive, standard military explosives, homemade bombs and other restricted odors that they might come across. Whatever the new bomb threat is, they’re learning the scent.
Since the dogs are part of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), they also have a unique mission: sweeping the grounds of the Tomb of the Unknowns and other sacred grounds ahead of ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
Their training and workdays aren’t all business, though. The handlers let the dogs play and be themselves as much as possible.
“We were in Cambodia supporting the first lady [Michelle Obama], and my dog ran off her leash,” Rodriguez remembered. “She was just kind of playing with the first lady’s staff. It was kind of funny but kind of embarrassing at the same moment. It was a very humbling moment, and she was very friendly with everybody, thankfully.”
Army Spc. Michael Finochio tries to pull free from K-9 Ricky during bite training as Ricky’s handler, Pfc. Sadie Vollendorf, looks on. (Image courtesy of Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Darien Kenney/Released)
SUCCESS BASED ON TEAMWORK
The dogs’ success is really dependent on how well they match up with their handlers. For many of the dogs’ human counterparts, once they’ve initially bonded and figured each other out, it’s pretty simple.
“Dogs are a lot easier to work with than people,” said Army Staff Sgt. John Breyer, the noncommissioned officer in charge at the Fort Belvoir kennels. “It’s easy to train a dog to do something, but it’s not easy to train a human being. That’s one of my favorite things about it.”
But the bonds they form make the inevitable goodbyes one of the toughest parts of the mission. The dogs stay with their detachment their whole careers, but their military handlers come and go, so leaving can be very difficult for both.
“Most dogs get so attached to some of those handlers, and they’ll only act on those specific handlers,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of the handlers — especially for those of us guys who have deployed — you’ve spent so much time with that dog specifically … to come home and leave him is probably one of the hardest parts.”
Case and point: Army Staff Sgt. John Breyer, who’s been a dog handler for about seven years, once had a stopover in Germany on his way home from a tour in Afghanistan. In the airport, he asked one of his vet techs to watch his dog while he went to the restroom.
“I tied him up to one of the big airport benches, and I walked off. All of a sudden, I started hearing ‘EEEE!’ and my dog was dragging this bench,” Breyer said. “We’d just been together for 12 months, and I hadn’t left his side, so with the anxiety of, ‘Where’s daddy going?’ he dragged the bench halfway across the airport trying to chase me.”
Now that’s dedication!
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