BOOKS: Trident K-9 Warriors
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May/June 2013:
Trident K-9 Warriors by Mike Ritland with Gary Brozek St. Martin’s Press (c/o MacMillan, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010), 2013. 272 pages, hardcover. $25.99.
A health issue forced Navy SEAL Mike Ritland to retire from active duty. While serving in Iraq, the precision of military dogs impressed him. So Ritland combined his love of dogs and service to the U.S. by forming a company that trains military dogs.
Most canine candidates do not pass the qualifying tests to proceed for advanced training. “Dogs who make it through the program and qualify to join the SEAL teams are head and shoulders above anything you’ve seen,” Ritland says. German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, collies, and mixed-breed dogs have been used in the past, but nearly all military dogs today are Belgian Malinois, named after the city (Malines) in Belgium where they were first bred around 1891. Resembling long-haired German shepherds, Belgian Malinois are typically blonde with a black mask and “saddle.”
Critics say American dogs should be used. Why spend so much money traveling around the world to buy dogs bred overseas when there is an ample supply right at home? Shelter dogs serve in customs enforcement, as hearing dogs, and sniffing out narcotics. Ritland says we want the best for our troops and that Belgian Malinois are superior for military work. But similar arguments were made in the past for the other breeds formerly favored by the U.S. military.
Military dogs are not house pets. That doesn’t mean they are mistreated, but they don’t spend days sleeping on soft fluffy beds, chewing on squeaky toys, or romping around dog parks. They are trained to sniff out explosives, to alert soldiers to approaching strangers, and to apprehend suspected enemy agents.
Training begins during puppyhood. Ritland socializes the puppies with adult men and women to “establish a comfort level with humans.” Who can resist holding a puppy? Then he plays a CD to introduce noises they’ll hear on duty, such as creaky opening doors, mufflers backfiring, gun shots, thunder, and noisy crowds. During training, Ritland drives puppies to many different busy public places. “Getting them used to a vehicle is essential,” he explains. All of this pays off later on when the dogs are trained to work around helicopters, which are frighteningly noisy, cast fast-moving shadows from their whirling rotors, and yet the dogs must be willing to quickly board. Many of the dogs whom Ritland trained were deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. Advanced training was done in California mountain ranges resembling the terrain they would encounter on the job. Dogs and their handlers often develop strong bonds. After killing or abandoning the dogs used during the Vietnam War became an enduring embarrassment, the U.S. military has moved toward rehoming as many dogs as possible after their service. Ritland describes as an example a dog named Samson who would sit where he detected the odor of explosives. His reward for finding a bomb included dog treats and a play session with a tennis ball. Military dogs, like human soldiers, have to pass periodic physical examinations to remain on active duty. Samson’s handler hoped to adopt him if he did not pass his physical to be re-deployed. ––Debra J. White