It’s a less than beautiful day in the bucolic fields of rural Darlington County, but the light rain isn’t dampening the first meeting between a group of 40 Labrador retrievers and their new Marine handlers.
It is training day for the Marines, not the dogs. The dogs are all pros, some champion retrievers, purchased for an average of $10,000 each, and trained and retrained to do one thing: find bombs in Afghanistan.
Most of the dogs have been deployed before — some multiple times. The new Marine handlers — admitted “grunts,” many from a mortar company — are learning hand signals and prompts on special whistles. As first timers, they fumble.
The dogs are patient.
One team stands out above the rest: a 26-year-old lance corporal from Liberia, via the Midwest’s Quad Cities, named Mathew and his yellow lab, Dixie. Mathew is no rookie, having been deployed as a handler once before. Dixie appears to be loving every second of the exercises.
“The dog is happy because he knows he knows his job,” Mathew said. (The Marines requested that last names not be used, because they say a bounty — recently raised to $50,000 from $25,000 — had been placed on both handlers and dogs by al-Qaeda.)
“The war in Afghanistan is (roadside bombs), not small arms,” Mathew said. “So we are really making a difference.”
There is still plenty of conventional fighting going on in Afghanistan. But more and more the conflict is becoming a war with roadside bombs, called improvised explosive devices by the military, or IEDs.
South Carolina is aiding that fight.
In addition to bomb-detecting dogs trained in Hartsville, Shaw Air Force Base has a bomb-disposal unit like the one in “The Hurt Locker” movie, and a South Carolina Army National Guard unit currently is patrolling roads in Afghanistan. That duty is called “route clearance” — keeping supply lines for U.S. troops free of bombs.
Two members of that unit, the Graniteville-based 1221st Engineer Company, were killed last month.
Since 2006, the United States has spent $9.5 billion developing strategies and equipment to detect IEDs, according to the Pentagon. It has spent an additional $5.4 billion infiltrating and attacking bomb-making networks.
The number of roadside bomb incidents in Afghanistan spiked to 8,994 in 2009 from 2,677 in 2007. By Oct. 21 of this year, that number had risen to 10,500.
By comparison, Iraq reported nearly 24,000 bomb incidents in 2007. Thus far in 2010, however, that number has dropped to just more than 1,100.
‘These dogs are thoroughbreds’
While the military, in general, has invested heavily in new armored vehicles, robots and surveillance equipment, the Marines are going more and more low-tech.
More than 200 bomb-sniffing retrievers — yellow, black and chocolate Labs — are deployed with the Marines in Afghanistan now. An additional 100, including Dixie, have been deployed and are retraining in Hartsville under a $34 million contract with Virginia-based American K-9 Interdiction.
But the Marines want 300 more dogs and plan to announce another contract in December.
The dogs are exclusively Labrador retrievers. The dogs are trained easily, want to please their handlers, are friendly, and have been bred for years to use their noses to detect and retrieve.
The Labs that land in the Marine training program are the best of the best.
“We want high-drive dogs, dogs that are bred for competition,” said Richard McDonald, the company’s master trainer and a Hartsville resident. “These dogs are thoroughbreds.”
McDonald started training dogs for competition in 1983 as a hobby. After seeing some success, he began training dogs for other people.
“You learn to baby-sit the people as much as the dogs,” he said. “My hobby turned into a profession.”
McDonald became a chief trainer at Auburn University, then was tapped by American K-9 Intervention.
He said the dogs in the program are special because they are trained to work “off leash” or be “dual purpose,” as opposed to most bomb sniffing dogs, which work exclusively “on leash” or “single purpose.”
Dual purpose means the Labs can roam free on patrols, following their handlers’ hand signals and whistles to locations of suspected bombs up to 300 yards away from the humans they are trying to protect.
When a dog finds a bomb, it doesn’t try to retrieve it or bark loudly, like a drug-sniffing dog. Instead, it simply lies down beside the device.
“You take all that breeding and training through the years and you adapt it,” company co-owner Nigel Rhodes said.
‘Whole new type of dog’
So far, the company has lost just one dog, Tar.
Tar was killed by a bomb that he found in April, shortly after his deployment. “He found an IED, laid down beside it, and the IED was set off by a remote-control device,” McDonald said.
And, yes, dogs can suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In fact, on this day, one of the stressed Labs, a chocolate named Buck, is among the dog-handler teams training. Buck was shaken up in Afghanistan and, while he still is used for training, “he won’t be going back in-country,” McDonald said.
“Dogs are just like people,” he said. “Some have stronger constitutions than others.”
Even on this training day, Buck is a little skittish around his new handler, needing some coaxing to work with the Marine.
That is another way these dogs are so special and so valuable, McDonald said.
Most bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs only will work exclusively, with a single trainer. These dogs are so highly motivated and attuned to their jobs that they will work with any trained handler at any time.
Said McDonald: “They are a whole new type of dog.”