Photography by Terry Mayes
Honor, courage and commitment; these are the core values of the Marine Corps. Moreover, as I learned one sunny afternoon in September, these are principles that can also be seen in the PMO dogs of MCAGCC.
The nine dogs currently housed in the kennels were destined for a life of service. All PMO dogs begin their journey in Europe, as puppies procured from pure German Shepherd, Dutch Shepherd or Belgian Malinois bloodlines, and are then brought to America. After being fostered for approximately eight to ten months, the dogs spend 110 days of initial training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, the first stop for all military working dogs. It encompasses 400 acres and consists of 90 training areas, 1,000 kennel runs and houses an average of 800 dogs. They are then sent to their new homes, operational units throughout the DOD, such as our base here in the high desert.
I sat down with SSgt Rubingh and Cpl Boland of PMO K-9, and asked about the course of training that the dogs receive. SSgt Rubingh explained that Marine Corps K-9 are either trained in patrol/aggression, which includes field scouts and building searches for potential suspects, or detection. Detection dogs very specifically cover either explosives or narcotics, but wisely, never both.
When the dogs eventually arrive at MCAGCC, they are assigned to a handler. A dog works with only one handler, but handlers can train more than one dog at a time. The PMO dogs of MCAGCC, like all other bases, belong to the Base Commander. Meaning that the dogs stay at this base when the Marines go.
The bond that is formed between dog and handler is strong. Cpl Boland told me “it has to be.” Continuing “especially for the MEF K-9 (Marine Expeditionary Force, deployment specific dogs, of which there is also a kennel aboard MCAGCC). The Marines are responsible for their dogs. SSD (Specialized Service Dogs) who go off leash have to be able to trust their handlers, and vice versa.” Cpl Angenend, who recently returned from a deployment in Afgahanstain with his combat tracker K-9 Fito, confirmed this. “You eat together, sleep together, play together, work together – you do everything together. They never leave your side.”
I wondered, are the military working dogs considered Marines? Cpl Boland told me that although not officially “I absolutely consider these dogs Marines. Any time we conduct training, they’re going through the same training we do. I’m sure anyone who’s been deployed with their dog will agree. Their dogs are right beside them in combat.”
With that, it was time to see them in action. We moved our interview outside and watched as Sirius deftly maneuvered through an elaborate obstacle course, and Rocco demonstrated the aggression portion of the demo. Watching, then later learning that a German Shepherd’s bite exerts between 400 and 700 pounds of pressure per square inch, I can tell you, it’s wise to comply with whatever is requested!
Besides their bite (much worse than the bark in this case), I asked the Marines what else these K-9 excel in? Smell was instantly mentioned. SSgt Rubingh explained that not only are their noses 110 times more powerful than human noses, they can pin point specific components. “If someone brings in a pizza, we just smell pizza. But the dogs not only smell the sauce, the cheese, the dough, but every individual ingredient that went into them.”
This keen sense of smell is just one of the characteristics that makes these breeds the perfect Military Working Dogs. As well as endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence and adaptability to almost any climatic condition.
But the quality mentioned that struck the loudest chord of all was loyalty. Semper Fidelis, always faithful – a motto and way of life known to all Marines and a sentiment echoed in the actions of the PMO dogs.
They’re loyal to the mission at hand, to the Corps and to this country. They truly are a Marine’s best friend.
Just as Marines retire, so too do Marine K-9…Thanks to The Robby Bill, passed by congress in 2000, military working dogs can now be adopted following completion of their service. MCAGCC dogs go through a recorded evaluation process that is reviewed by Lackland Air Force Base. Their skilled team will determine whether a dog can be retired or returned to Lackland to help train new students. SSgt Rubingh reports that “about 95% of the dogs are adopted by their former handlers or vets.” Dogs can also be adopted direct from Lackland. Visit lackland.af.mil for more information on their adoption process and to download an adoption form.