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Dogs help clear a path for Marines overseas

15 Apr 2009 | Lance Cpl. Skyler Tooker

Marines with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion have taken on the challenge of route clearance using specially-trained dogs that can find improvised explosive devices. 

The Marines attended a six-week course to learn how to work with the IED-detection dogs.

“All the dogs are Labrador retrievers, between the age of 1 and 3, and are prior hunting dogs,” said Dave P. Zabinski, 45, a dog trainer with American K-9 Interdiction, based in Carrollton, Va., that provides the dogs and training for the program. “The program purchases the ‘Labs’ from civilians and trains them.”

“The dogs that go through American K-9 Interdiction have a 98 percent success rate in completing the training and becoming certified to become an IED-detection dog,” Zabinski said.

“After we go through the six-week course [in Virginia], we are certified to become a dog handler,” said Sgt. Charles M. Martin, 28, a platoon sergeant for Route Clearance Company, 1st CEB, from Philadelphia, who handles a black Labrador Retriever named Rooster. “We can handle and give the dogs commands up to 500 yards away, and it will be a lot safer for the Marines, because we don’t have to get up close to the IED.”

The dogs have been trained to follow voice and hand commands given by their handler, a Marine that has been working with that particular dog for a few months before deploying. The dogs also work with their handler at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., for pre-deployment training during Mojave Viper.

“If the ‘Labs’ go through all the proper training and they are not paired up with a Marine within 30 days, then the dogs will go through a one-week refresher course,” said Zabinski.

Route Clearance Co. has a few dogs out in the field already, and the 10 Marine-and-dog teams who attended the training received feedback from the ones out in the field. The dog handlers will go through a one-week refresher course before they go on their next deployment.

“The dogs are practicing point-to-point training, which is when we know where the explosive is and we use commands to get them to find the explosive,” said Cpl. Ryan A. Palanzo, 24, an IED dog handler with Route Clearance Co. from Hershey, Pa., who handles a yellow Labrador Retriever named Big. “We also send them out in a field orbit, where the dogs will go long ranges from the handler to hunt out the IED.”

The dogs are also trained to search specific locations on command, and continue to hunt until they reach the target they are hunting for.

The idea of getting more IED-detection dogs came from feedback from wounded warriors, who said that more IED-detection dogs could save more Marine lives.

“The dogs are controlled by their handlers, and sending the dogs out will develop a stand-off distance between the IED and the Marines making route clearance a little safer,” said Palanso.