One of the military’s most effective weapons
Ask any Soldier what their favorite weapon is and chances are they will name a type of firearm, rocket launcher, grenade, or something similar. Ask the same question of a Soldier who underwent training to be a military working dog handler and you’re bound to get a very different answer. Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Pelkey, a trained MWD handler, would likely respond with “military working dog.”
Pelkey, kennel master, 222nd Military Police Detachment, has spent the more memorable part of his career as a military dog handler. Now he oversees and trains MWD teams at Fort Gordon.
Having partnered with three different MWDs over the course of 15 years, Pelkey has witnessed the impact MWDs have in and outside of combat zones. MWDs play a critical role in protecting and defending the United States here and abroad. They have served alongside every service branch in combat during every major conflict, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There are ways to do our job, especially on the explosives side, but there is not a better way to do it than we do it,” Pelkey said. “If somebody needs to get somewhere safely in a faster manner, using a military working dog, there’s not a way to replicate the speed at which we can do it.”
Here at Fort Gordon, MWDs are trained and certified to detect either explosives or drugs; not both.
“Then it becomes a safety issue,” Pelkey said. “On top of whatever detection they’re slated for, they have patrol tasks as well.”
Fort Gordon is authorized nine K-9s, and currently has six. Two are Belgian Malinois, two Dutch Shepherds and two German Shepherds. One of the MWDs is coming up for disposition or retirement.
All MWDs and dog handlers train at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, prior to being assigned to a military unit. When it comes to assignments, MWDs can be likened to weapons.
“Just like a weapon would stay at a duty station, military working dogs stay at the duty station they’re assigned,” Pelskey explained.
There are a few exceptions to include MWDs with a specialized search skillset but the majority stay behind and receive a new dog handler when a Soldier arrives. Once a dog handler arrives at his new duty station, he is matched with a MWD and must complete a certification process.
Following certification the duo must complete eight hours of weekly training together: four hours of detection and four hours of patrol training. It may not sound like a lot time-wise, but with six teams, it amounts to more.
“Four hours of training might include a training scenario that takes one team an hour, but everyone must stick around for each of the six teams to finish,” Pelkey explained. “So a one hour problem will take in essence six hours.”
“To get those four hours of patrol training and four hours of detection training, it’s a 40-hour-week job,” Pelkey said.
And when they aren’t fulfilling those training requirements, it’s either because a special mission – such as supporting the Secret Service for president missions or working as part of the security team at Trump Tower, they’re preparing to deploy, they’re currently deployed, or they’re training somewhere other than on Fort Gordon. Pfc. Patrick Jolly, a dog handler assigned to 222nd Military Police Detatchment, is preparing for the latter. Jolly and his dog Nando, 7, are heading to Corpus Christi, Texas, for a training mission with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Drug Enforcement Administration. Jolly comes from a lineage of Army military police, so he said it felt natural to follow their footsteps, only taking it a step further by enlisting as a dog handler.
“My family has always had dogs, so canine was the way for me to go,” Jolly said.
Reflecting on the past year he’s spent with Nando, Jolly has no regrets about enlisting.
“I trust Nando with my life every day I’m on the road, and it makes me feel proud that he’s the best drug dog we have,” Jolly said.
Spc. Steven Cantoran, also with 222nd MP Det., has been a dog handler for three and a half years. Prior to Fort Gordon, Cantoran was stationed at Korea. This summer, he and partner Josje, 4, will be deploy to Iraq, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Cantoran said he’s loves “every second” of being a dog handler and is excited for the opportunity to deploy.
“Not many people can say if they have a bad day, they can just go hang out with their dog,” Cantoran said.
Just as the work has many positives, there are also some downsides. For Pelkey – and others – it’s usually when the MWD team is forced to split. Pelkey said dog handlers develop a bond with their MWD that’s difficult to leave behind.
“You definitely become attached to the dogs,” Pelkey said. “It’s tough to see somebody else with your dog, and it’s not just a dog at that point. It’s a partner.”
Still, he wouldn’t trade his career for another.
“It’s a companionship you don’t get anywhere else, and it’s seeing these guys go out and get the training they need that makes them well-rounded not just as a Soldier, but well-rounded as a canine handler as well,” Pelkey said.