Labradors, handlers train for war in Afghanistan

HARTSVILLE, S.C. -- It's a less than beautiful day in the bucolic fields of rural Darlington County, but the light rain isn't dampening the first meeting between a group of 40 Labrador retrievers and their new Marine handlers.

HARTSVILLE, S.C. -- It's a less than beautiful day in the bucolic fields of rural Darlington County, but the light rain isn't dampening the first meeting between a group of 40 Labrador retrievers and their new Marine handlers.

It is training day for the Marines, not the dogs. The dogs are all pros, some champion retrievers, purchased for an average of $10,000 each, and trained and retrained to do one thing: find bombs in Afghanistan.

Most of the dogs have been deployed before -- some multiple times. The new Marine handlers -- admitted "grunts," many from a mortar company -- are learning hand signals and prompts on special whistles. As first timers, they fumble.

The dogs are patient.

One team stands out above the rest: a 26-year-old lance corporal from Liberia, via the Midwest's Quad Cities, named Mathew and his yellow lab, Dixie. Mathew is no rookie, having been deployed as a handler once before. Dixie appears to be loving every second of the exercises.


"The dog is happy because he knows he knows his job," Mathew said. (The Marines requested that last names not be used, because they say a bounty -- recently raised to $50,000 from $25,000 -- had been placed on both handlers and dogs by al-Qaida.)

"The war in Afghanistan is (roadside bombs), not small arms," Mathew said. "So, we are really making a difference."

There still is plenty of conventional fighting going on in Afghanistan. But more and more, the conflict is becoming a war with roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices by the military, or IEDs.

Since 2006, the U.S. has spent $9.5 billion developing strategies and equipment to detect IEDs, according to the Pentagon. It has spent an additional $5.4 billion infiltrating and attacking bomb-making networks.

The number of roadside bomb incidents in Afghanistan spiked to 8,994 in 2009 from 2,677 in 2007. By Oct. 21 of this year, that number had risen to 10,500.

By comparison, Iraq reported nearly 24,000 bomb incidents in 2007. Thus far in 2010, however, that number has dropped to just more than 1,100.

While the military, in general, has invested heavily in new armored vehicles, robots and surveillance equipment, the Marines are going more and more low-tech.

More than 200 bomb-sniffing retrievers -- yellow, black and chocolate Labs -- are deployed with the Marines in Afghanistan now. An additional 100, including Dixie, have been deployed and are retraining in Hartsville under a $34 million contract with Virginia-based American K-9 Interdiction.


But the Marines want 300 more dogs and plan to announce another contract this month.

The dogs are exclusively Labrador retrievers. The dogs are trained easily, want to please their handlers, are friendly, and have been bred for years to use their noses to detect and retrieve.

The Labs that land in the Marine training program are the best of the best.

"We want high-drive dogs, dogs that are bred for competition," said Richard McDonald, the company's master trainer. "These dogs are thoroughbreds."

McDonald said the dogs in the program are special because they are trained to work "off leash" or be "dual purpose," as opposed to most bomb sniffing dogs, which work exclusively "on leash" or "single purpose."

Dual purpose means the Labs can roam free on patrols, following their handlers' hand signals and whistles to locations of suspected bombs up to 300 yards away from the humans they are trying to protect.

When a dog finds a bomb, it doesn't try to retrieve it or bark loudly, like a drug-sniffing dog. Instead, it simply lies down beside the device.

"You take all that breeding and training through the years and you adapt it," company co-owner Nigel Rhodes said.


So far, the company has lost just one dog, Tar.

Tar was killed by a bomb that he found in April, shortly after his deployment. "He found an IED, laid down beside it, and the IED was set off by a remote-control device," McDonald said.

And, yes, dogs can suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In fact, on this day, one of the stressed Labs, a chocolate named Buck, is among the dog-handler teams training. Buck was shaken up in Afghanistan and, while he still is used for training, "he won't be going back in-country," McDonald said.

"Dogs are just like people," he said. "Some have stronger constitutions than others."

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