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Four-Legged Comrades: Alpha Dogs Serve in Military Missions Overseas

QUANTICO, Va. | The handlers at Marine Corps Base Quantico unanimously agree that Rex is the meanest dog they have. He has put six or seven handlers in the emergency room according to current handler, Sgt. David Olszak. “But with me,” says Olszak, “he’s a sweetheart. He’s never once tried coming up on me. But I know that if someone were to try anything with me, he’d protect me.”

Sgt. David Olszak talks about his work as a Marine dog handler:

Rex is one of an elite group of alpha dogs — mostly Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds and Dutch Shepherds — that are trained to assist American troops overseas. He came to Quantico after suffering heat stroke on deployment in the Middle East and is now used in a police capacity sniffing out drugs, explosives and missing personnel on the large base.

American military dogs have been used as far back as the Civil War. The Marines have used them in unofficial capacities during World War I and the Banana Wars (1934-35), but it wasn’t until 1943 that the first combat dog was officially deployed — to Bougainville in the South Pacific. Most recently, a military dog was part of the Navy SEAL mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

Around 250 military working dogs (known as MWDs) are currently serving in the Middle East, searching for explosives, booby-trapped houses and personnel (both enemy and friendly). A dog might endure as many as five deployments, but most will show signs of PTSD after the second, Olszak said.

Olszak says both dogs and handlers acquire their status by being at the top of the class. “We all are alpha personalities.” Handlers use that competitive instinct throughout the training process. “It helps us build better dogs between each other,” he said. “Every person that comes into work tries bettering their dog, tries performing their dog to the best of their ability.”

Olszak, Ofc. Curtis Caram and Rex demonstrate a bite drill:

Besides being at the top of the pack, handlers are looking for dogs who can work long hours, are fiercely loyal and have a desire to please their handler.

Handlers typically train with the dog they’ll take into combat, developing their bond over months. Olszak worked with his previous dog, Jasmine, for 11 months before deployment. He says by the time they step off the plane, the dog can read the handler’s emotions. “So when we’re stressed out, the dog’s stressed out,” says Olszak. “If we’re out in a combat situation and we let our guard down, the dog raises his guard to better protect us.”

But besides the obvious benefits of protection, extreme sense of smell, and speed, dogs provide an added benefit to troops overseas. “Everyone loves dogs,” says Olszak. “All of our dogs remind the guys of their pups at home, so it’s a good morale boost.”

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