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Working dogs fight heat to fight terrorism

16 Jul 2004 | Sgt. Jose E. Guillen

The hanging, drooling tongues of Santo and Rek, two military working dogs, is all the proof needed to show that the dog days of summer are here in Iraq.

Fortunately for dogs assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1, they've got Cpls. Donald R. Paldino and Darin Cleveringa , trained dog handlers who've partnered with the pups for more than two years.  They're the Marines responsible for keeping the dogs' noses cool and moist in the hot, dry climate.

"We're constantly trying to accommodate the dogs as much possible," said Paldino, a 22-year-old military policeman from Oxford, Mass.

Paldino, deployed to Iraqi from Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., has been serving with Santo, a 4-year-old Czechoslovakian Shepherd, for two years.

"For some dogs it's okay to have a 103-degree body temperature and for others it's not," explained Cleveringa, a 22-year-old military policeman from Rock Valley, Iowa, who deployed with Rek from Marine Corps Logistics Base, Barstow, Calif. "So we're constantly watching their body temperature because they can over-heat at any time."

Cleveringa had a close call with Rek, a German Shepherd.  During a patrol, Rek's body temperature, reached 104 degrees.  He was airlifted to Baghdad for medical attention.

Panting, not wanting to move and heavy breathing are common signs a dog is trying to stay cool, Cleveringa explained.

"If they start panting and breathing really fast - they're in trouble and need to be (evacuated)," Cleveringa said.

Paldino and Cleveringa concocted their own method for keeping the dogs fresh for duty.  They hooked up a generator and two fans in their vehicle.

"We actually have two mist-fans that are connected to a water container and a generator that's mounted on top of the humvee," Cleveringa said. "Those fans really help a lot as long as the water is iced."

The hot weather takes a toll on the dogs and cuts into the time they're effective.

"Being out in the desert during a mission or standing-by for a patrol to kick off burns them out, which only makes them effective for shorter time," Paldino said.  "It's really disappointing when we have to wait hours for a mission under the sun because then they can only sniff for about 15 minutes."

Paldino said better equipment like a hard high-back humvee - wide enough for two kennels - with an air-conditioning unit would help keep military dogs fresh and more combat effective in Iraq.

For now, they rely on more hands-on methods for cooling.

Ice vests and soaking a dog's belly, legs and head with cool water also helps keep body temperatures down.

With only a handful of veterinarians in the region, Paldino and Cleveringa found themselves working with corpsman to help ease some of the rigors.

"There just aren't too many vets around, but our 'docs' are helping out where they can," Paldino explained.

"The 'docs' have a tub they fill with water for the dogs," Cleveringa said. "One day they gave our dogs some IVs to get them fully hydrated."

According to Paldino, support for the dogs is pouring in from families and organizations back home.

"Every time we get care packages, it's never for us, it's all for the dogs," Cleveringa said. "They get more mail than we do."

Paldino and Cleveringa also spend a portion of their time sending lessons-learned back to Marine units in the United States who are preparing to deploy with working dogs.

"We're constantly calling our units back in the states about what works and what doesn't, what gear to bring and what not to bring," Cleveringa said.

"This deployment has been a huge learning lesson for us and for the next wave of K-9s," Paldino added.