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By Sgt. 1st Class Jason Alvarez
KFOR Regional Command East
If you visit Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, you may be met at the front gate by Figo and his handler Cpl. Charles West, with the 131st Military Police Detachment. Figo is a Malinois X, a mix of the Belgian malinois and the German shepherd dog. The combination results in an intelligent, good-natured, level-headed energetic protector of their beloved human.
“I love their energy and personalities, all dogs have different personalities. My last dog was a bit more angry towards working, while Figo is more loving towards work and loves to be around me,” said West. “I love the different personalities of the dogs and how they work. On this rotation our bond has gotten a lot closer than back in our duty station in Germany.”
Every branch of the armed forces has Military Working Dogs, (MWD), in their ranks to perform a variety of missions, from explosive and drug detection, to scouting and patrolling. Their sense of smell is about 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than a human’s, depending on the breed.
The MWD teams primary mission in Kosovo is explosive detection, and not just at Camp Bondsteel. “We recently went to Film City in Pristina to conduct a sweep for a VIP visit. We also do helicopter landing zone clearances with EOD and aviation. So far we haven’t found anything, thank God!”
Figo is 6 years old and was trained at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas by the 341st Training Squadron. The 341st is a world leader in providing trained MWD’s and handlers for the Department of Defense and other government agencies and allies. The 341st provides training to MWD’s used in patrol, drug and explosive detection, and specialized mission functions.
Military working dog handlers are military police with regard to their military occupation skill, MOS, as a 31 Kilo. MWD handlers train their dogs for combat operations abroad and installation security at home. MWD’s also train to be a non-lethal option for neutralizing a threat.
The MWD handlers receive regular military training before being schooled as a 31K.
“Previously, to become a MWD handler, a Soldier had to be a 31 Bravo, Military Police, to be eligible to become a handler. Now an initial entry Soldier can become a handler. Previously I was a 31 Echo, Corrections Officer, then I re-classed to 31 Kilo, MWD Handler,” explained West.
As a 31K they must be able lift their dogs and gear in addition to their own gear.
“There is a requirement during the first half of the handlers course where the handler has to carry an 88-pound sandbag a certain distance, put it down safely, pick it back up and return to the starting point” said West. When on mission, Figo only carries his vest. “I carry everything else, from his medical bag to his toys, water for both me and him, dog booties, goggles and muzzles. The booties are for rough terrain.”
Handlers are responsible for the dog’s physical needs, and the dog’s mental needs too, particularly stress when on patrol.
“We’re subject matter experts when it comes to our dog. If the dog is stressed, not feeling well, their body language doesn’t seem right… they can’t speak so we have to be their voice” said West.
Most importantly, a MWD handler must build a strong bond with their partner in order to be a successful team.
“The initial bonding process begins with taking the dog for walks, playing with the dog, and learning the dog’s behaviors, mannerisms and personality. The dog may have one personality when you meet them, and that may change as you spend more time with them.” West says.
“We hope to be working with the Kosovo Security Forces and their MWD’s soon so we can build another bond between Kosovo and the United States Military,” said West.