Saturday, July 4, 2009

A July 4th Salute to USMC Military Working Dogs

Four years ago I had the privilege of spending half a day at the Camp Pendleton kennels where elite military working dogs live and train. This Independence Day I'd like to share some of those memories.

The Marine Corps began using dogs as messengers and scouts during World War II, recognizing that they could reduce casualties and find the enemy in hiding places. Dogs were donated by civilians eager to contribute to the war effort. Two organizations, Dogs for Defense and the Doberman Pinscher Club of America, provided many animals.

Clyde Henderson, a high school chemistry teacher from Ohio and chairman of the Doberman Pinscher Club's training committee, was recruited to lead the 1st Marine Dog Platoon into combat.

"After a five-day cross-country train trip, the 1st Marine Dog Platoon led by Henderson went into temporary quarters at Camp Pendleton," wrote James A. Cox in Marine Corps League Magazine in 1989. "With the help of Carl Spitz, owner of a famous Hollywood dog training school, Henderson trained the platoon intensely for a few weeks while awaiting a convoy, making up the rules as he went along, since he had no precedents to guide him."

The dog platoon joined up with the 2nd and 3rd Marine Raider Battalions for an assault on Bougainville, an island in the South Pacific, that began Nov. 1, 1943.

Six dogs were recognized for heroism on Bougainville. Among them was Caesar, a 3-year-old German shepherd who was donated by his owner in New York City. A messenger dog, Caesar received a promotion to sergeant in recognition of his bravery.

On Jan. 23, 1944, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland published this account of his record: "Caesar was wounded on the third day and had to be carried back on a stretcher. While with his company, Caesar made nine official runs between the company and the command post, and on at least two of these runs he was under fire." Caesar also forced a Japanese soldier to drop a hand grenade he was about to hurl at the dog and his handler, the newspaper reported.

Other dog platoons saw action on Guam, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Soochow was a veteran war dog beloved by many San Diegans. After World War II, he retired at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. On Oct. 29, 1946, a parade was held to honor his ninth birthday.

"Soochow hit the foxholes with the other Marines during the siege of Corregidor, and fought alongside his buddies," said Ellen Guillemette, archivist at the depot's Command Museum. "He was captured when the island surrendered on May 6, 1942.

"Soochow spent nearly three years in various prisoner-of-war camps. He and 17 Marines were liberated by American Rangers in February 1945. He held the Philippine Campaign, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign, Good Conduct, World War II Victory and American Defense medals."

Today, Camp Pendleton is the largest base for Marine dogs in the United States. Dogs working in all branches of the U.S. military are recruited and trained at the Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The dogs are part of the Military Police, and are trained to perform patrol and bomb-and drug-detection duties. Each dog is assigned to one handler for a two-year rotation. In Iraq, the dog and handler work and live together.

Currently, Marines use only German shepherds and a variety of Belgian shepherd called the Belgian Malinois.

"The Marine Corps began having problems with Dobermans and Rottweilers," said Sgt. Greg Massey, the kennel master at Camp Pendleton. "They are good attack dogs, but not good at detection."

Although Marine dogs are required to be aggressive and protective, that doesn't mean they have to be large, Massey said. The Belgian Malinois is a medium-size dog, weighing 40 to 80 pounds.

"Size doesn't mean much. You can have 50 pounds that can leap and grab your chest, arm, back, leg, anything," he said. "If it grabs your hamstring, I don't care if you're (former Miami Dolphins running back) Ricky Williams – you're going down."

Massey said he prefers female dogs because they tend to be more loyal than males.

Marines interested in working as handlers go through a competitive process conducted by the Military Police.

"As a trainer, you are critiqued just like a dog," said Sgt. Vince Amato, chief trainer of the base. "If you are thin-skinned, you will have a hard time."

Amato said the Marine Corps goes to great lengths to match the dog's personality with that of the handler.

"Dogs learn just like we do," he said. "If the dog's not learning, it's because the handler isn't training the right way. It takes time, practice and patience."

Massey said choke chains and pinch collars are only used to give a dog a correction.

"If the handler abuses a dog, he's out of here," he said.

Army veterinarians care for dogs in all branches of the military, assigning their working weight and establishing their diet.

"Working dogs are known to get bloated, probably from playing too soon and too hard after eating," Massey said. "For this reason, they are fed twice a day."

After a career that typically lasts about 10 years, today's military dogs are rewarded with a variety of retirement options. Many are available for adoption by previous handlers, veterinary technicians and the public. Some are used by law enforcement agencies or returned to Lackland, where they are used to train new handlers.

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