MARINE CORPS BASE 29 PALMS, Calif. --
The duo trots along, one loping with shoulders hunched, eyes wide, his breath heavy and quick. The other jogs with his back bent slightly under the weight. Man and canine sprint side-by-side, no leash around the dog's collar – his handler guides him with a sharp tone or a shrill whistle. They come to a building, and as the handler stands to one side of the door, another Marine faces opposite him. With a nod of the head, the door flies open and a black labrador disappears inside, emerging several minutes later with a large chew toy in his mouth.
It may look like an odd game of fetch, but the dog handlers of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, are actually conducting an improvised explosive device course, and the chew toys represent explosives or bomb-making materials. The May 22, 2011, exercise is one of many that the Marines and their dogs will undergo at Marine Corps Base 29 Palms, Calif., as part of Enhanced Mojave Viper, their unit’s predeployment training evolution.
Bomb-sniffing dogs like Knox play an integral role in combat operations overseas. The dogs often prove more reliable than conventional means of detecting hidden explosives and roadside bombs due to their keen sense of smell and the rigorous training the dogs are put through.
However, the dogs and their handlers must learn to work as a cohesive unit before they can be of any use to Marines on deployment in theater.
“When we first meet [the dogs,] we’re not used to them, and they’re not used to us,” explained Lance Cpl. Cody West, Knox’s handler. “The dog needs to listen to you and no one else.”
The training was the first time the dogs and their handlers operated outside of a controlled environment, which forced the handlers to keep their dogs' attention on them alone and not on passing Marines, West explained. He added that it also painted a picture of the challenges they will face on deployment, where they will be operating with infantry platoons and companies.
In addition to the strategic benefits the labradors offer, there is the additional benefit of understanding that their role as dog handlers allows them to protect Marines from their greatest threat while deployed – IEDs.
“A lot of people rely on what we do. My dog, you tell her what to do and she goes on auto-pilot and just does it,” said Lance Cpl. Miles Bishop, a dog handler with 1/6. “It’s been awesome having [the dogs] around – it gives me something to look forward to and makes a crummy situation better.”