A Special Breed of Warrior

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A Special Breed of Warrior

Shadow bounded through the Florida Panhandle brush and grass field homing in on her prize. The black lab moved purposefully through the scrub, examining the various debris and makeshift shelters placed throughout the training grounds of Facility Range D-4 at Eglin Air Force Base. At times, only the tip of her ebony tail was visible above the greenish-tan plants and looked like a periscope knifing through the swaying vegetation in the late afternoon breeze.

She didn’t realize it but Shadow was in a race. Across the field, an explosive ordnance disposal technician was searching for the same target. Somewhere on the grounds was a brick of Semtex plastic explosive like the kind used by terrorists to bring down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. He was carrying a boxy device about the size of a six pack with a flexible hose attached to a rigid stainless steel tube. As he swept the tube back and forth, he watched the analog gauge’s needle bounce up and down as it detected the varying concentration of nitrates in the air.

It turned out not to be much of a race. Within a few minutes, Shadow came upon a rusty old military truck. She circled it one time and then stopped at the spare tire mounted on the back. She took a seat and waited to be called back. The EOD tech saw Shadow sit down, and knowing he was beat, threw his hands up in frustration.

“Heh, Heh,” Rich chuckled as he unwrapped a stick of Teaberry. “What’s the score now?”

“You know the score. You don’t have to rub it in,” said the professor standing in the bed of Rich’s pickup truck next to him. He watched Rich chomping on the gum, “Teaberry? Do they still make that?”

“Yeah, I know the score,” Rich said. “And yes they do. I have a connection.” He adjusted his International Harvester baseball cap while grinning in triumph. His gray hair and mature features accentuated in the orange glow of the setting sun.

“Look,” Rich continued, “the technology simply isn’t there yet. I hear they are working with lasers now or something. Dogs are still just better at explosive detection—especially in the field. Shadow isn’t even my best and she beats your toy 80 percent of the time. How much did that thing cost anyway?”

“It’s a prototype. They always cost more.”

“Uh huh, how much?”

“This one is about three quarters of a million.”

Rich nearly spat out his gum. “Dollars?”

The professor looked back at him and sheepishly nodded.

As Rich needled the professor, an Army lieutenant general approached them with the EOD technician by his side. He rested his arms on the edge of the truck bed and looked up at the two.

“Well Professor Bonetti, it looks like we still aren’t there yet.”

“General, why do you keep trying?” Rich asked. “These dogs are efficient, obedient; they don’t require a lot of maintenance …”

The general cut him off. “I know Mr. Choatt. We’ve been through all that. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and JIEDDO are funding this and they have decided to keep working on a mechanical alternative.”

“I’m sorry General, I understand. It’s just that we could have trained and equipped an awful lot of dogs for the $19 billion already spent to develop this technology.”

“I have to say, I agree with you on that. As head of the Joint Improvised Explosive Detection and Defeat Organization, I have been tasked to keep moving on this and to explore all the best options. The Taliban and ISIS are getting better at building IEDs, and last year, they had over one thousand successful bomb attacks. If we called for them, how many dogs could you get me?”

“Oh no. Not me. I don’t train combat animals. These ones are just for detection or search and rescue. I won’t put any of mine in the line of fire.”

Rich continued, “General, you need solid military working dogs that can keep up with the Special Operations Forces deployed in Afghanistan. This requires a special breed—ones that can be trained in all MWD disciplines. I think you’ve heard of that facility in northeast Texas that is developing these animals. I know the guy running it. He’s former SOF and has some well qualified trainers on his staff. I think you’ll find what you’re looking for there.”

At that non-descript clapboard-covered breeding and training facility Rich described, he came into the world, destined to become the best one percent of the best one percent. The last of a litter of five, he was a bit smaller than his brothers and sisters. Half German Shepherd and half Belgian Malinois, he had black ears and a bushier tail than most of the others in the kennel. Unlike most German Shepherds, his hindquarters were proportional to his front, enabling him to have a long, smooth and even stride. Down his back ran a line of black fur that zigzagged through the tan from his neck to the base of his tail.

The family stayed together for six weeks until it was time for the pups to be weaned away from their mother. Master Sergeant Manny Blanco watched the litter interact for hours on end, noting the differences between each of the pups. He noted how they played, how they reacted to sound, if they startled easily, or quickly gave up when playing tug of war or wrestling. The sergeant had a trained eye for what made a dog special.

He was looking for the ones that had the unique qualities needed to become Special Operations K9 service dogs. As he dictated his thoughts into the memo function of his iPhone, he found himself making more notes about the small one than any of the others. The diminutive fuzzy one had an awareness about him that was well beyond the others’.

When a playful dogfight broke out, the pup with the black zigzag could size up his brothers and sisters instantly, and knew when to charge in and when to back off. His positional awareness was special. He could assess a situation quickly to determine if he had the advantage for reaching a toy or treat before anyone else. When he was out of position, he could distract the others with a sudden movement, giving him the fraction of a second he needed to make his move. Above all, however, the dog knew people.

He was aware of them. While the others never paid much attention to Manny as he made his observations, the small one noticed. He would look at Manny and lock eyes, not to challenge—which is the nature of most dogs—but as if to collect information and make a connection. Manny became fascinated with the small one and started to call him Zip because of his quickness and the way he darted back and forth around the kennel. It wasn’t the toughest sounding name, but it fit.

“What do you think?” Manny said to his partner, Chloe Van Raalten, as he motioned his head towards Zip.

“What, the little one?” Chloe responded, a bit surprised.

“Yeah, take a look at him. He always out-maneuvers the other dogs and has an uncanny awareness. See, he’s looking at us now, like he knows we’re talking about him.”

“I don’t like the smart ones,” she replied dismissively, and in a completely business-like manner as she began to rattle off Zip’s negatives. “We need doers, not thinkers. Dogs with a mind of their own tend to do what they want, not what we want. Most of them are cowards. They know better than to put themselves in harm’s way. Anyway, I don’t like the mixed breeds. You know that. Purebred Belgian Malinois are better suited to our needs. This one’s got too much shepherd in him. He’s going to get hip dysplasia, just you wait. Plus, he’s cute. I don’t do cute.”

“True, maybe,” Manny replied. “But watch him. He’s a born worker. Since he was able to walk, he moves around always looking for something to do. He may look like a shepherd but he’s got the heart of a Malinois. And I think he’ll stay small, which is a plus for when he has to be carried or tethered for fast roping from the choppers.”

Zip was drawn to the sound of their conversation. He took a seat about ten feet away from the two and listened to the tones of their voices and their speech patterns. The mane of fur surrounding his face made him look just like a German Shepherd and the way his triangular ears moved was like twitching antennae as he tried to process their words into useable information. Those ears conveyed emotion and intelligence.

Finally Chloe capitulated, “Look, if you want to waste a quarter of a million dollars of government money to train and equip the mutt, that’s your call. You’re the boss. But I don’t think he’s the right candidate for Spec Ops.”

“Well, I’ll get him out in the next couple weeks and see how he does, but I’ll want you to work with him a while, too.”

Manny Blanco was in a unique position. He retained his old Army rank, even though he was no longer on active duty. He was a reservist, but he was working on a very particular project for the U.S. Special Operations Forces and Navy in particular. Manny had spent the past two years establishing a special school to breed and train military working dogs, typically referred to by the acronym “MWD.” Up to this point, most military units traveled to Europe to identify and buy their working dogs, as did law enforcement agencies. They usually had initial training done in Holland, Belgium, or the Czech or Slovakian Republics. As the value of MWDs continued to appreciate, the U.S. military decided it might be worthwhile to establish a stronger domestic breeding and training program.

Manny was a pioneer in this area. He had spent most of his adult life in the military, having joined the Army right out of high school, and practically all of it working with these fine animals. His first contact with MWDs was as a young MP, where he began to realize their value. Later, as an Army Ranger, he witnessed their effectiveness in both unconventional and direct combat missions. Where he perfected his skills, however, was as a member of the elite Navy SEALs, following a rare branch transfer. Few had seen special ops from his vantage point. Manny served in the first Gulf War, Somalia, and an initial tour in Iraq following 9/11. Throughout each tour, he came to know courageous K9 troops, developing an affinity for them as well as a reputation as one of the best military dog handlers in the world.

After Iraq, he was transferred back to the states where he finished out his active duty helping to select and train MWDs. He became the foremost authority on identifying the qualities of the best working dogs. Now, he was tasked with managing the domestic program through his privately owned school, which had an exclusive contract with the U.S. Special Operations Forces.

As soon as Manny thought Zip was ready, he took him out to run him through the paces. First, he exposed Zip to the sounds of combat. Dogs that showed anxiety around loud noises such as thunder, gunfire, or explosions were automatically considered unfit for special duty. As he worked alongside Manny, Zip grew accustomed to the sounds. And while Manny could tell the noise sometimes hurt his ears, the dog never broke stride or cowered while on parade. It was a good start.

Next, he needed to see how Zip would respond to commands. Manny practiced him vigorously on trigger words designed to instill discipline, including commands calling on and off attack, and special words and hand motions to signal quiet, or to drop and stay low. Zip could sometimes be obstinate when he grew tired of the lessons. Then he would simply shut down, taking a comfortable spot in the grass and turning his back to Manny. More than once during the early part of his training Zip was nearly washed out of the program. In time, though, Zip became more and more responsive. Manny finally felt they were at the point where Chloe could make some progress with him.

Chloe and Manny were strictly business partners. He had hired her away from one of the elite K9 schools in the Netherlands. Chloe was gifted with an amazing patience for animals, and worked with them extensively on the routine tasks, such as learning commands, which she taught Zip to recognize in both English and Dutch. They went over and over basic disciplined maneuvers. She got him used to walking over strange or different surfaces like rocks and open grates without hesitation.

Chloe trained Zip to navigate all sorts of hazards and to think three dimensionally so he could scale near-vertical ladders and walk on narrow balance beams without fear or hesitation. Before long, Zip accomplished the K9 obstacle course in record time. As she spent long hours working with him, she realized that Zip was no ordinary dog and her initial assessment had been premature.

After he mastered commands and maneuvers, Zip and Chloe worked to perfect his seeking and detection abilities by engaging in increasingly complex drills. At first, she arranged boxes that contained different scents. The object was to identify the one that held the “target” scent. When Zip was told to search, or “zoek” in Dutch, Chloe was always amazed at how Zip hesitated momentarily before beginning the search. He always paused and looked at her, as if trying to determine a “tell” that might tip him off to where the target box was. Most working dogs began a search almost franticly with nose to the ground, quickly moving back and forth and around the items they are directed to examine. But not Zip. He was more methodical. He moved with surprising efficiency when looking for the target. When he was sure he had found the specified item, he would either become rigid and identify the object by pointing, or just sit down and look back at Chloe as if to say, “That’s all you got?” As they worked to hone his skills, Zip became adept at identifying over a hundred different scents including the chemical compounds used in various types of explosives. He could distinguish between those commonly used in U.S. manufactured weapons and those developed by adversaries.

Finally, she taught him how to track and pursue. Zip’s sense of smell was not nearly as developed as a bloodhound’s, and so he had to learn the process of ground disturbance tracking. While bloodhounds can detect smells in the air left by the person being trailed, Zip could not and had to keep his nose close to the ground where footsteps disturbed surrounding soil and the human tang was most concentrated. Scents were more difficult to detect dependent on the hardness of the surface. However, Zip did well and could follow any number of scents over great distances without losing the trail. Once he was on to the smell of his prey, there was no escape.

Play was his reward for a hard day’s work. After Zip completed hours of training, he looked forward to his down time. This was the period when he could play tug-of-war or chase a ball with Manny, or just spend some quality time chewing up a rawhide. Zip’s favorite activity was catching a Frisbee. When he finished all his lessons, Manny would move towards Zip’s footlocker, which contained his various training aides and toys. Zip’s ears pointed straight up and he tilted his head to one side, waiting and watching for that battered red disc to come out of his box. When it did, Zip would spin around and dart for the door like a bolt of lightning, reinforcing his metaphoric name.

Manny could whip that disc a full seventy-five yards, and Zip could chase it down so fast that he was able to leap into the air and snag the toy from the sky while it was still more than six feet off the ground. As Zip chased after the Frisbee, he pinned his ears to the side of his head and used his tail like a rudder to cut through the air, making turns on a dime. When it was time to leap, he pushed off with his strong hind legs that flared out to the sides, as if he had wings. He clamped down on the Frisbee and dropped elegantly to the ground, spinning around before heading back to Manny with his head high in a deliberate, almost cocky, trot. Manny sometimes had to drag Zip off the field when it was time to quit.

SEAL stands for Sea, Air and Land. A Navy SEAL must master each of these environments. Dogs chosen to become part of these elite teams are no different. When the order came in for a SEAL K9, Manny knew Zip was the one. His land-based skills were already best in class. But they still had a lot more work to do.

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