Story and photo by Sgt. Daniel Stoutamire, 2nd AAB, 1st Inf. Div., USD-C
BAGHDAD—The olfactory capabilities of man’s best friend, canis familiaris—dogs, that is—are well-known and have been used by law enforcement to detect illicit drugs for decades. Soldiers with the 2nd “Dagger” Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, United States Division – Center are hoping to impress upon Iraqi Security Forces the utility of working dogs to fulfill that function, but more importantly to become the first line in the detection of explosive materials.
Four dogs, trained by and inherited from EOD Technologies, a civilian firm whose contract is winding down, are currently living and training at Joint Security Station Old MoD, where their 11th Iraqi Army Division handlers and 2nd AAB trainers live and work as well. As EODT’s contract did not provide for the transport of the dogs out of Iraq, Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul Karim, commander of the Rusafa Area Command, seized the opportunity to employ them, and arrangements were made for equipment and the four dogs to join the 11th IA Div.
“Nobody has invented a machine that can smell things like a dog’s nose,” said Sgt. 1st Class Earl C. Couture, an engineer with Company C, Special Troops Battalion, 2nd AAB and a Jay, Maine, native.
Couture, by virtue of his having spent four years as a kennel master at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., from 2003 to 2007, is in charge of ensuring both that the dogs are able to differentiate everyday smells from potentially lethal ones and that their Iraqi handlers are able to use their dog’s abilities most effectively.
“The benefits of using working dogs are countless,” he said. “They can really speed up the process [of looking for explosives], which means they won’t slow down traffic as much, can go anywhere, and as long as they get six hours off, they can work for 18 hours a day.”
In addition, Couture said, they are non-aggressive and can be employed even in civilian- and children-heavy areas.
The dogs came from EODT already trained in the basic skills of detecting lethal explosives, but Couture said they needed to be re-familiarized with those scents.
One of the ways he and his team worked on this was by arraying a group of boxes on the training grounds at JSS Old MoD, with all but one box empty, and the remaining box containing an explosive material that would be found in an actual bomb. Both the dogs and their 11th IA Div. handlers were unaware of which box contained the material. When the dog recognized the scent, it sat, indicating it found what it was looking for.
“We train [the dogs] to use a non-aggressive reaction, so they don’t disrupt the explosive and blow themselves up,” Couture said.
During training on Aug. 17, three of the four dogs identified the correct box every time, and the fourth identified the correct box on its second attempt, showing some work still needs to be done re-acclimating the dogs to the scents.
Part of the Iraqi handlers’ job is also to maintain the health and hygiene of their dogs so they can be ready at any time to go out on a mission.
“The past few days we were taught how to feed and groom the dogs,” said Lt. Muqtada Anwar, a squad leader with the 11th IA Div. “We still need to train more and get results.”
Only Soldiers who volunteered and explicitly stated they like dogs, or have dogs at home were considered for canine duty, said Couture. The dogs live in an air-conditioned trailer and are taken out for frequent walks on grassy areas.
The anticipated result of the training is to enable the 11th IA Div. to utilize a corps of bomb-sniffing dogs whose natural sense of smell, speed, and dedication will save lives and thwart insurgent schemes. Man’s best friend, indeed.