I have the good fortune of managing two of the five Regions in Afghanistan of the largest Department of Defense K9 contract ever written. It is a sizeable force that provides explosive and narcotic detection as well as patrol capabilities on many of the US Military bases and outposts throughout the country. I have said to many people that I am blessed in that I have the best teams in the country and my project managers are by far the best I have seen. Over the last year and a half we have experienced more than our fair share of growing pains as we have built the program from the ground up. Every day we see improvement in our performance, in training and in our administrative and logistical support processes. We have smoothed out the worst of the kinks and we continue to perform well above the standard.
A little over two weeks ago, I received information from one of our Kennel Masters that there had been three “bites” in the Kabul Base Cluster over the preceding few days. We are not the only K9 contract in Afghanistan and there are also Military Working Dogs co-located with us. Still, when a bite happens and the report goes up, we are generally the first to get asked. We checked all of our folks and I was very quick to report to our Contracting Officer Representative that none of the reported bites were from us. Two days later, all hell broke loose.
We have had more dog bite related injuries in the last two weeks than in the previous 15 months combined. From the first incident, we have taken this very serious and consulted closely with the leadership there on the ground. No one wants this kind of thing to happen and no one has ignored it. We have looked for trends and any common factors that might help us to prevent it from occurring in the future. We have looked for things we might have missed or over looked in past training and despite the many years of combined experience our Project Managers, Kennel Masters and Trainers have, they have genuinely taken the time to look at everything objectively and without any preconceived ideas about how things “should be”.
My understanding of this type of problem is much clearer now than it would have been a year ago thanks in part to the Project Managers that I have had the privilege of working with. All of my education and military/civilian leadership and management experience is of little help if I fail to recognize the most fundamentally important lesson in all of this… to not forget that the working dog is an animal, unpredictable and aggressive by nature and driven by a natural instinct that we exploit for the purpose of achieving our objectives.
One of the most common injuries that we experience is a result of kong (toy) retrieval. The dog is rewarded for his success with the kong and if he is not ready to give it back, it could result in a significant emotional event for the handler. The fundamental behavior associated with this is obedience. All of our handlers successfully execute kong retrieval multiple times every day. A command is given to release the kong (Aus!) and a separate command to stay (Bliven!) as the handler slowly reaches down to retrieve the kong. This method of retrieval, while certainly more dangerous, reinforces obedience as opposed to simply using the leash to pull the dog away from the kong and allow the handler to safely retrieve. Where we typically see problems is where the handler may exhibit a lack of confidence and grabs at the kong too quickly prompting a drive response from the dog. This is something that we can work at to build the confidence and keep the handler from snatching. That said, if the dog still decides that you are not taking his kong at that particular moment, there is not very much that you can do about it. To suggest that there is something we can do to eliminate the possibility of bites altogether during kong retrieval is wishful thinking. Still, in the contract world, you are accountable, even when Mother Nature has command.
A serious spike in bite incidents, even on a program this size, can very quickly over shadow all of the good work our people do every day in support of force protection. We can analyze, evaluate and debate the reasons why and possibly even prevent some of these types of incidents from occurring, but the reality is that in dealing with K9 in a detection and patrol capacity, there will always be residual hazards of the profession.