At Fort Meade, Military Dogs Compete For Growling Rights

September 15th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: At Fort Meade, Military Dogs Compete For Growling Rights

Washington Post
September 15, 2007
Pg. B1
By William Wan, Washington Post Staff Writer
This was not your typical dog show. No fluffing or hairspray or pedigree points here.
Day four of a week-long competition among military dogs in the Washington region included a grueling three-mile run through the woods, an obstacle course that forces dog and handler to crawl on their bellies and a 30-second window to pump 10 rounds through a distant bull's-eye.
They call it the Iron Dog triathlon, and it is there, handlers say, that the toughest, most grizzled military dogs in the area get a chance to be all that they can be.
The competition raged all week at Fort Meade between 24 teams of dogs and handlers from Fort Myer, Fort Lee, Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.
The first few days, the teams competed for points in narcotics and explosion detection events, during which K-9 units tried to locate anything from TNT strapped on car engine blocks to stashes of marijuana and cocaine planted in a warehouse.
Then on Wednesday came the "hardest-hitting" dog contest, a favorite among the soldiers, in which the dogs are given a short distance to build up speed and launch into a bite and tackle on a pretend suspect.
"You should have seen some of them flying. I mean, there were some that just flat-out took the guy down," said Sgt. 1st Class Claudesedric Grace, a canine expert and judge from the provost marshal's office at Fort McNair.
Thursday was the crucial day, with the week's most rigorous event: the triathlon. The competition started at 7:45 a.m. as the contestants -- 18 units in all -- lined up at the starting point in staggered shifts for the timed race.
By the time they reached the obstacle course, about midway through the event, canines and humans were starting to show signs of wear.
It's under pressure and exhaustion that the strengths and weaknesses emerge, said judge Hans P. Freimarck, the Army's program manager for military dogs, who has worked with canines for 26 years.
"The young kids, they take what they're taught as gospel, but what they learn is they have to adjust to the situation," he said. "I'm looking for team unison: how well they work together, if either handler or dog are overly dominating the relationship."
Arriving at one obstacle, several dogs balked at the metal bar hurdle they were supposed to jump.
"Sir, does it matter how we get him over?" asked Staff Sgt. Raymond Nelson, who won the Top Dog title last year.
"No, soldier, accomplish the mission. That's all we said," Freimarck answered.
In response, Nelson picked up his German shepherd, Brix, by the belly and heaved the animal's heavy frame over the bar.
"Keep moving!" Freimarck shouted.
The military first began training dogs during World War II. Thousands were used in the Korean and Vietnam wars, including 281 who were killed in action in Vietnam. Today, the Defense Department has about 2,000 dogs in use, mostly German shepherd and Belgian Malinois. Each can cost up to $15,000 to train.
In the Washington region, they are mostly used to protect military facilities, but some are tapped for Secret Service missions, and several have protected the president. The handlers have also been deployed overseas to work with military dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"You go on raids, search for weapons caches, scout for IEDs," said Staff Sgt. Gunnar Pedersen, who has been deployed to Kosovo, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. "The situation is different, but you use the same skills."
Thursday's triathlon was designed to simulate the action that the units might encounter, including the grand finale: the bad man waiting for them at the end of the three-mile trail.
"They call me the decoy," said Spec. Steven Shaffery, encased in a thick red and purple burlap suit. Sweat poured from his head -- the only exposed part of his body -- from the heat of the suit and the stress of having dog after dog sicced on him as they neared the finish line. The bite, according to military experts, ranges from 400 to 700 pounds of pressure per square inch.
By the end of the day, all competitors -- dog and human -- were panting for oxygen and water. And yesterday, at an awards ceremony in the officers' club at Fort Meade, the winners were announced.
An NSA officer, Jeffrey Popovich won the triathlon, but the title of Top Dog in the overall events went to two teams from Fort Myer: Sgt. Jonathan Nunemaker and his dog, Gino, and Pedersen and his dog, Rex. For Rex and Pedersen, it was the last shot at the title.
At 8 years old, Rex, a German shepherd called "the old man" by the soldiers at the Fort Myer kennel, will be put up for adoption in coming months. His handler is also planning to retire soon from the military.
"I wouldn't have changed it for the world," said Pedersen, 29, of his years as a canine handler. "I got paid to come in and play with dogs all day. How many people get to say that?"

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