CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq  —Since ancient times, dogs have been trained specifically for battle.  Roman war dogs were organized into attack formations, often clad in sharply-spiked collars and coats of chain mail.

Throughout the ages, war dogs have served many other purposes, including sending messages, pulling carts, dragging wounded men, and even blowing up tanks. Over time, their role has evolved and changed to suit the needs of the ever-changing battlefield.

With the current threat of explosives, the Marine Corps’ K-9 handlers aboard Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq, train their dogs to sniff out bombs, drugs and even people, to help with ensuring the safety of their fellow Marines.

“The threat is still here,” said Sgt. Mark D. Vierig, Camp Al Taqaddum’s Kennel Master, attached to Task Force Military Police.  “And as long as there are bombs, we still have a job [to do].”

Their training is a result of the Military Working Dog program, which was developed in 1942 soon after the United States entered World War II.  The Corps started to train dogs and their handlers to be capable of scouting and patrolling during combat operations where the dogs’ keen sense of smell enabled Marines to search a larger area in a shorter amount of time.

Unlike other branches of the military where service members become dog handlers after several years of enlistment, to become a dog handler in the Marine Corps, Marines go from boot camp to Military Police school and straight on to the dog handling school, after a very selective process.

“We’re the only branch of service that gets dogs right out of boot camp,” said Vierig.  “It’s a lot of responsibility … [so] they make sure you’re mature and responsible.”

While at MP school, individuals interested in the K-9 field must be in the top ten percent of their class.  After writing an essay on why they want to be a handler, they will then go on an oral board to get selected for the K-9 school.

Just like the handlers, the dogs go through a selective process as well.  Coming mostly from European vendors, Vierig said the dogs must show courage, good prey drive, and have the right temperament.

“Not every dog makes it, not every dog is meant for this job,” Vierig said.  “Very few dogs can actually do what these dogs do.”

He explained that dogs begin training when they are nine months to a year old.  Like Marines, they go through a basic boot camp to learn the rudimentary skills of being a military working dog.  The training can be as quick as a few weeks to as long as several months depending on the dog, but after boot camp it’s up to the handler to make advancements in their skills.

Cpl. Daniel P. Pierce, specialized search dog handler, attached to Task Force Military Police, said they try to train with the dogs everyday. The handlers set up scenarios in open areas, roadways, abandoned buildings, and vehicles where they hide simulated explosives.

Once they’ve picked an area to hide the explosives, the handlers will conduct a search with their dogs, allowing the dogs to improve their skills.

“It keeps it in the dog’s head that they’re out here to do a job,” Pierce said.  “The more they train, the sharper they are.”

Keeping their dogs’ noses sharp, the handlers are better able to assist units in need of their help.

“We’re assisting in a big way … the major threat is bombs and the dogs play a major role in this part of theater,” Vierig explained.  “Dogs have capabilities that we just don’t have.  You can take out an engineer with landmine capabilities but his machinery isn’t going to pick up scent like dogs can.  By no means do they replace Marines but they are force multipliers.”

Whether it is a combat mission, raid, route clearance operation, or even a health and comfort inspection, Camp Al Taqaddum’s military working dogs and their handlers support all units on the base for whatever they need sniffed out.

For more information on the ongoing mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, visit

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