Sgt Marcin Radwin and MWD Dex, a 4-yr-old Yellow Lab
Radwin’s story will be our narrative feature, as we follow him from training to deployment and back. Through his experience, we will show a complete arc of a dog handler team.
We begin with his tale of enlistment: “I was actually against the war and against being in the military. I graduated with a degree in Graphic art, and couldn't find work.” He finds his true calling in dog handling: “After my first deployment I was given an opportunity to go to Canine Company. I left Iraq two months earlier and went straight to a Mine detection dog school and right after that I didn’t want to do anything else.”
Sgt Brad Mrsny with MWD PACO, a 4-yr-old Belgian Malinois
One week after returning from his third deployment to Afghanistan, we interviewed Sgt Mrsny with his MWD Paco by his side. “I wanted to be out there saving lives and there is no better way than being a dog handler and walking in front of that truck and making sure people are safe. You just have the mentality that you are either going to come home or you are not going to come home."
Dog teams work off leash for the added safety of the handler and the troops they lead. “There is always a nervous factor – what if he turns a corner and he gets shot? What if he turns a corner and there are cattle and he decides to go chase it? What if he is all the way up there and he gets shot and we get pinned down, and I can’t get to him to save his life?” Throughout the year MWD Paco found 18 hidden explosives.
SSgt Copeland remarks, “You have to be very creative in this job... You have to put yourself in the mind of a criminal, and learn to think like them. Where would I place a bomb, how would I do it, and how can I outsmart the enemy and keep my unit safe.”
An experienced MWD handler, SSgt Copeland must be able to read his dogs’ body language and behavior and to nurture an understanding between the pair using language that employs verbal commands, hand signals, body movement, and a keen perception of any signs that indicate danger for the dog or the unit. Soldier/handlers must be proficient as both combat soldiers and handlers, able to shoot back and protect themselves and their dog while clearing the route for those behind.
SSgt Elizabeth Davies with MWD MAYA, a 3-yr-old Belgian Malinois
Ssgt. Davies won the Top Dog award at the end of three months at SSD Handler School at Lackland Air Force Base. We filmed her during her last two weeks of training in Yuma, Arizona that involves, among other ordeals, searching for a hidden bomb within a 40-acre radius in a sun baked desert. Naturally talented and on her way to becoming a Master Dog Handler, SSgt Davis and her dog Maya, move effortlessly over the rough desert terrain. SSgt Davis’ body language resembles more of an elaborate pas de deux than the routine of a dog handler in control of her dog. When asked what she fears most, she answered, “Not finding a bomb and it’s right there, and then find out that someone was on that same route, that same area, and got killed.”
Sgt Tyler Budge with MWD BACO, a 7-yr-old German Short Haired Pointer
Sgt Budge describes the turning point when he decided to become a dog handler on patrol during his first deployment to Afghanistan. The SSD dog leading their patrol alerted the unit to a bomb buried underground in a water pipe line while they were preparing to plug up the pipe. As per training the dog stopped at the site and “indicated” by sitting silently at a distance of five feet from the lethal spot. Tyler’s biggest fear about deployment is that Baco could be kidnapped or killed by the enemy. “Baco and I are tight. He is my best friend. I would rather die than anything happen to him.”
Marine Cpl Peter Coffey with MWD SITA, a 4-yr-old German Shepherd
"I am a Marine, Peter, from North Platte, Nebraska, says, “and it’s all about control. I have to learn to trust her, and let her do her job.” Since dogs are primarily searching for bombs to please their handler and be rewarded with a squeaky toy, he worries that his tendency to control Sita will distract her from her job to work off the leash and search independently.
His relationship with Sita is beginning to change him in ways he could never anticipate, helping him understand the complexity of his relationship with his closest human companion, his wife.
Sgt Hailey Shappard and MWD Tigris, a 5-yr-old black German Shepherd
A former gunner, Sgt Shappard was recently certified as a MWD handler and exceeded everyone’s expectations. She and her dog Tigris scored a remarkable 100% find rate, detecting all of the hidden explosives
She explains her devotion, “Canine is my life. I’m here all the time, including my days off. A lot of our dogs have more character than some humans. Dogs can be more loyal than human beings especially if you build a bond with that specific dog. Maybe your family or friends or coworkers aren’t always going to be there, but your dog will.”
On the one hand, she struggles with the solitude of being a handler: “My biggest fear about deploying with just a dog is not having the camaraderie that you have when you deploy with a company or platoon or a squad, you don't have all those people to fall back on.”
SSgt Joshua Miller, Head Trainer of MWD teams at Fort Hood
One of the most exciting aspects of filming hours of MWD training has been the opportunity to witness the special knowledge a great master trainer passes on to new handlers. By following master trainer SSgt Joshua Miller we see what it takes to build a successful working dog team. Soft spoken when giving instructions and very precise when giving critiques at the end of a long exercises in bomb searching, SSgt Miller resembles more of a Zen master than a military officer.
“A dog and a handler can definitely be in sync together, but there has to be a rapport. The dog is a part of me. When I have it on leash, it is kind of like the movie Avatar. I hook into that dog, and I figure out what he’s doing. And then we work together as a team. It’s a feeling of togetherness. The dog relies on me, and I rely on him. We need each other.” Miller has been working with dogs for 16 years.