PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — A unique - four-legged and furry - veteran resides in Park Rapids, Minn.
Ring, a 12-year-old black Labrador, spent three deployments in Afghanistan as an explosive detection dog.
“He’s special,” says Ring’s handler, Tony Rouillard.
For his first five years in the military, Ring served with the U.S. Marine Corps. He searched for improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs. His abilities undoubtedly saved many lives, Rouillard said.
Ring was transferred to the Navy when he developed an issue with his breathing and was unable to cool down as effectively in a hot climate.
Rouillard, 31, grew up in Lakeville, Minn. “I joined the military when I was 23. I was there for six years. After that, I decided to come up north, where my parents are,” he said. His folks have a lake home in the Park Rapids area.
During his first two years of service, Rouillard was on the USS Harry S. Truman out of Norfolk, Va. Rouillard decided to train to be a master at arms. “They do security. Basically, military police,” he said.
One of his supervisors then told him about the military working dog (MWD) program.
“From there, I started going to the kennels in Norfolk and volunteering in my off-time. I did what they call ‘kennel support.’ I’d help with feeding dogs. I’d help with training dogs, and they would teach me how to do it. Then I’d get a letter of recommendation from the kennel master to attend dog school,” he recalled. “About four months later, after spending nearly every week there, I got that letter and went to school in Lackland.”
Located in Lackland, Texas is the 341st Training Squadron, which provides training to MWDs used in patrol, drug and explosive detection, and specialized mission functions for the Department of Defense and other government agencies.
For eight weeks, Rouillard went through master at arms training, then spent another seven weeks at dog handling school.
Ring was bred and reared at a state-of-the-art whelping facility at the 341st Training Squadron. Obedience training begins at about 8 weeks old, followed by detection work and hand signals.
German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois are the primary breeds used as MWDs, Rouillard said, “but I love Labs. You can’t beat Labs. If you’re working a detection shift for bombs, they are just so high driven and do a great job. And they are so lovable.”
Ring and Rouillard partnered in about 2013 when Rouillard was assigned to the U.S. naval base in Bangor, Wash.
Ring’s handler had moved to a different duty station, but MWDs always stay with their assigned kennel, Rouillard explained.
“And that’s where I got assigned Ring.”
They were a team for four years, in charge of base security. “There’s five installations there that we would go around, patrol, do detection work. We would mostly do gates, perimeters, walk-throughs of high-business areas, like commissaries,” Rouillard said.
“He was a phenomenal working dog when we were teamed together,” he continued. “Ring had the best nose, obviously, especially in our kennel.”
They used to go on missions for the Secret Service. They would help out with security if the president needed to travel, such as during the election campaign in 2016.
“It was a lot of fun because Ring loves traveling, plus it was his favorite time because he got to sleep on a bed in a hotel,” Rouillard said.
Rouillard describes Ring as “a ball of energy. All he wants to do is play and work and swim. Whenever we worked, he would non-stop go. It’s his favorite thing to do in the world.”
Unfortunately, Ring’s records were lost when he transferred from the Marine Corps to the Navy, so Rouillard does not know many details about Ring’s time in Afghanistan.
“All these dogs, they have tattoos in their inner ear. His is R833,” he said. “I really wanted to find some of his old handlers and hear stories about him and let them know he is retired and living the good life.”
Ring’s work was all conducted off-leash, using hand signals and commands.
Ring likely had three different handlers in Afghanistan. “After each tour, he’d come home, get some recovery and then he’d be almost instantly assigned to a new handler going over.”
It’s not uncommon for MWDs to deploy three times in a four-year span, particularly if they are skilled. Experienced MWDs keep their handlers alive.
“We call it holding the stupid end of the leash because the dog basically already knows what to do,” Rouillard said. “That’s the thing we’d always tell each other: ‘Trust your dog, man.’ If you put enough training in with them, just trust your dog.”
Rouillard left the service in December 2018. Now he works for American K9 Detection Services.
“Two months after I got out of the military, Ring got out of the military the same year so I decided to adopt him,” he said.
“It took him a little bit of time to adjust to retired life, but he came around pretty quick once he saw his new bed and everything,” Rouillard.
Ring turns 13 in December. He’s arthritic, but is otherwise healthy.
Ring loves the snow. “He rubs his face in it,” Rouillard said.
“He’s definitely spoiled now. Grandma makes all-natural pumpkin and peanut butter dog treats for him.”