If you ever need inspiration to hang in there, not to quit, to just go another step, and another one, until the finish line, look no further than military working dog teams. These intrepid souls (canine and human) lead troops through IED-infested fields in the most horrendous conditions.
Everyone’s life depends on the dog’s nose and on the bond the handler has with the dog. Handlers have to be able to read their dogs so they can know when the dog has found an explosive. And they have to be strong, and able to hoist their dogs over their shoulders if their dogs are injured or can’t get past an obstacle. Sometimes they must walk for miles in roasting heat, wearing full gear plus 70 pounds in their packs, rifles at the ready, and their dogs just ahead. But they don’t give up. They can’t. Too many people are counting on them so they can go home alive and in one piece.
This same never-give-up spirit was recently out in force at the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog Trials at Lackland Air Force Base. I headed to San Antonio for the week of seminars and trials, and was astounded by these teams and their resolve. My fabulous photographer, Robin Jerstad, was able to capture this in pictures, a few of which I bring you now. You can find more on my Soldier Dogs Facebook page.
Technical Sergeant Larry Brown does an arduous hike with his military working dog (MWD) Ooakley (a puppy program dog, thus the double first letter in his name) on his shoulder.
Check out this Malinois‘ mouth. It really goes all the way back. It’s part of the reason Malinois are referred to as “malligators.” I love this photo.
When you’re in 95-degree heat with full gear and a dog on your back, sometimes it’s nice to have a helping hand. Here Marine Captain Brandon Bowe helps adjust the helmet of Sergeant Manuel Marin, carrying his MWD, Erny N773. (Love the name Erny for a military dog!)
As Marin said, “It was waaaay harder than I predicted.”
The competition was not exactly a walk in the park, even for a team as tremendously bonded as Army Sergeant David Varkett and his supersweet specialized search dog, Nouschka.
And this was the relatively easy part of the Iron Dog day at the DOD K9 Trials: a long hike with plenty of hills, with competitors in full gear and with packs full of sandbags. Don’t forget the heat factor. This was the day you’d want to be the dog, not the handler.
A little backstory: Varkett and Nouschka have been together a few years now. They are so tightly bonded that when the military separated them last year, Nouschka would not eat and kept throwing up. She tried to escape the kennels, too. On the other end, Varkett was working hard to try to get her back as his dog. It took some doing, but they were together again a month after they were pried apart. I hope he gets to keep her for the rest of her career, and then after she retires. (Specialized search dogs tend to stay with their handlers longer than most other military dogs do.)
No one quit the trials, no matter how hard it got. Many were completely exhausted, many had to stop and catch a few breaths, but thanks to grit, determination, and encouragement, everyone stayed in the game. What an inspiration for all of us who have far easier tasks in life. I’m so proud of these teams! I want to use some of these photos as motivators on hard days; you just keep going, you don’t throw in the towel.
Here, an Army handler wearing full gear and a pack containing a sandbag collects himself during a long and arduous crawl with his dog at his side.
This part of the event came after the teams had already hiked a few miles and handlers had walked up a large hill carrying their dogs.
Obstacles may seem insurmountable, but there’s usually a way to figure out how to overcome them. Here Army Sergeant Elisabeth Wienke, the only female handler in the competition, lifts her military working dog, CChance (another puppy program Malinois) over one of the obstacles on the course.
This is a small wall compared with some of the walls they have to get over on missions in Afghanistan.
If it weren’t for the camo, the backpack, the helmet, and the weapon (the one with bullets, not the one with teeth), this would just be a bucolic scene of a dog and his best friend taking a stroll.
As someone on my Soldier Dogs Facebook page wrote, all they need is a fishing pole. Sometimes working hard looks almost effortless …
If you’d like to know more about my book Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, check out the Soldier Dogs website, where you’ll find ordering info, a beautiful book trailer, and lots of resources that will help you reach out to help these military working dog teams.
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