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Originally published August 3, 2010 at 7:14 PM | Page modified August 4, 2010 at 4:27 PM

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Dogs of war: 'These dogs are saving lives'

For the past year, a small band of military working dogs — Belgian Malinois, German shepherds and Labradors — has joined patrols in southern Afghanistan. Their handlers say the dogs have detected homemade bombs, explosives, bomb-making factories, weapons and ammunition stockpiles.

Los Angeles Times

KUHAK, Afghanistan —

The military considers them just another piece of equipment; they even have service numbers tattooed inside their ears.

Troops often treat them as pets, playing with them and feeding them the junk food that proliferates on the remote bases of Afghanistan.

To their handlers, bomb-sniffing dogs are more like battle buddies.

"I'd trust Urmel over most people," Army Sgt. Tait Terzo said of his 4-year-old Belgian Malinois (service number: L-424).

At the same time, he said, if a bomb is lethal, better it kill a dog than a human. "I hate to say it, but I'd rather lose a dog than a person, as much as it would hurt to lose Urmel," Terzo said.

For the past year, a small band of military working dogs — Belgian Malinois, German shepherds and Labradors — has joined patrols in southern Afghanistan. Their handlers say the dogs have detected homemade bombs, explosives, bomb-making factories, weapons and ammunition stockpiles.

The dogs often are the first line of defense for ground troops. Homemade roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, are the leading killer of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, accounting for 56 percent of combat deaths this year.

A few servicemen and women are skeptical about just how well the dogs detect the most expertly hidden bombs, but most say they feel safer when the animals lead foot patrols.

"These dogs are saving lives," said Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Wood, program manager for the working-dog kennel at Kandahar air field, where no dogs or handlers have been killed despite the ubiquitous roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan. "Every bomb they find is one that won't kill coalition forces."

Urmel has sniffed out at least 20 bombs or explosive caches over the past 10 months. Ted, a 6-year-old chocolate Lab, has detected nearly 2,000 pounds of explosives.

A brush with death


On June 5, Urmel and Terzo survived their first explosion when a roadside bomb detonated just after they passed by, slamming them to the ground but causing no serious injuries. The bomb, hidden next to cow manure near a pomegranate orchard west of Kandahar, was planted too far off the dirt path for Urmel to detect, Terzo said.

In November, Ted and his handler, Army Spc. Robert Sylvia, were near a homemade bomb in Kandahar City when it exploded. Ted wasn't hurt, but Sylvia suffered a concussion.

Last month, Ted sniffed out 30 pounds of homemade explosives hidden in a haystack in the Arghandab Valley — enough to make several bombs.

"Yeah, that's right — he found the needle in the haystack," Sylvia said.

Most of the animals also are trained attack dogs."We call 'em land sharks," Wood said. "They're mean, lean fighting machines."

Virtually every handler has been bitten more than once, usually in training. Dogs and handlers train together for months before deploying in Afghanistan, where they train almost daily when they're not on patrol.

The dogs are bought as puppies from breeders worldwide. For the past seven years, dogs also have come from a U.S. military breeding program at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

The dogs are taught to sit when they detect explosives, so that they don't start digging for buried bombs. They work for rewards — a chew toy or snack in training, although never on patrol.

"Ultimately, they're working for praise from their handler," Wood said. "That's what really drives them."

Most dogs work until they are 8 to 10, though one 14-year-old is still working. On the other hand, one 4-year-old had to be "decertified," or retired.

"Too much exposure to too many bad things," Wood said.

The dogs are watched closely for signs of stress or fear when they return to the kennel from patrols. Handlers and veterinarians try to determine whether a sudden change in behavior is due to, say, separation anxiety when a handler goes on leave, or adverse reactions to an explosion. The military is conducting studies on possible post-traumatic stress syndrome in working dogs, Wood said.

Urmel handled his first bomb explosion well, Terzel said. He's been exposed to many controlled detonations; on a recent patrol, Urmel winced each time an explosives specialist screamed out "Fire in the Hole!" to announce a detonation.

"He knows that phrase pretty well," Terzel said.

Urmel, the only kennel dog allowed to wander the handlers' working area just beyond the locked cages, follows Terzo's every move, seeking his approval while accepting belly rubs from any available human. But during attack training on the Kandahar base, Urmel becomes a snarling, lunging whirl.

Well-disciplined animals

As part of an exercise, Spec. Marcus Bernardy put on a thick, padded coat and played the role of a fleeing suspect. Terzo released Urmel, who speeded after Bernardy, leapt to sink his teeth into a padded arm, and slammed the 205-pound soldier to the ground.

Growling and clenching, Urmel hung fast until Terzo ordered him to release.

In a second exercise, Urmel again raced after Bernardy. But this time, as the dog was about to leap and strike, Terzo shouted "Out!" Urmel veered past Bernardy, doubled back, and hovered over the suspect, growling and slobbering.

Terzo smiled down at Bernardy, who was on his face in the dirt, sweating profusely.

"Basically," Terzo said, "he's a bullet we can call back."

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