By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Competition
In last week's post I sent a dispatch from Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas where I attended the DoD's K-9 Trials -- a dog team competition that hadn't been hosted there since 9/11.
The competition itself spanned three long days. Each day every team had to complete a series of new tasks, which stretched from detaining unruly and aggressive "suspects" they encountered on a patrol, to multiple cordon searches for explosives (or for the narcotics dogs, drugs), and finally to the Iron Dog challenge. The competition overall was designed to push each team to the edge, forcing them to dig into all areas of their handling-skills and to call up the full-length of their training. But without question the Iron Dog -- a six-mile course outfitted with a series of obstacles, including a dog carry up and down a 100 meter incline, a mud crawl, a dash through a low-rising river, a few walls to hup over with the canines, and a human carry (basically a fireman's dummy that I heard weighed upwards of 150 lbs) -- was the most arduous leg of the trial. On this day contestants, who were judged by noted experts in the field on a scale of points, were rated as they had been days prior, but the Iron Dog was without a doubt, a race to the finish.
I stationed myself at the first obstacle -- the dog carry. The weight and size of these dogs varies greatly. The first German shepherd to get hauled up the hill weighed 98 pounds. (That's a lot of weight to begin with, but not all of these dogs enjoy getting a bumpy ride on their handlers' shoulders and struggled the whole way up, and all the way back down.) A few teams opted out of this obstacle altogether, taking the ten-minute penalty rather than enduring the climb. But more than just a remarkable feat to watch, this part of the challenge is a great example of how important a skill carrying a dog actually is when these teams are downrange for real. Handlers do not leave their dogs behind; they must be able to bear the weight of their four-legged partners. One of the lessons a handler learns in preparing to deploy is that when he or she is assigned a mission they must convey to the mission's commander one unrelenting and crucial thing: Where I go, my dog goes.
It was not a remarkably cool week in San Antonio, and the Texas sun, which drove temperatures in the mid-90s, coupled with oppressive humidity, made for challenging conditions for not only handlers but for the dogs as well. There were veterinary techs stationed around the course checking the dogs to make sure their temperatures hadn't climbed to a dangerous level and on hand to douse their backs with cool water. While no dogs were seriously injured, I did hear that a couple weren't able to withstand the heat and couldn't complete the final run.
But in the end, most of the teams crossed the finish line at a run -- hot, tired, bruised and blistered, but deservedly proud, with their dogs trotting in fine form beside them.
Following is a small gallery of photos from the event along with the official list of winners. Special thanks to photographer Christy Bormann for generously sharing these images with us, and who also happened to be great company during the competition.
Official Results from the 2012 DoD K-9 Trials
Patrol: 3rd Place: SFC
Dorsey; 2nd Place: Sgt. Guajardo; 1st Place: MA1 Brooks
Explosive Detection: 3rd Place: Sgt. Palmer; 2nd Place: TSgt Brown; 1st Place: MA1 Brooks
Drug Detection: 3rd Place: SPC Ventura; 2nd Place: SPC Cartwright; 1st Place: Sgt Helm
Iron Dog: 3rd Place: SSgt. Handy; 2nd Place: TSgt Kitts; 1st Place: Sgt. Guajardo
Top Dog: MA1 Brooks
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.