Working with man’s best friend

Published 4:48 pm Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It can be a terrifying thing to see a dog streaking toward you across a field, fast and low to the ground, lips peeled back from a mouth filled with huge white teeth. But for the son of a Luverne couple, all he can think about, as the 80-pound animal leaps toward his arm, is making sure the dog gets a good bite.

Army Spec. Jason Cartwright, son of Clifford and Judy Cartwright of Third St., Luverne, is a student in the specialized search dog handler program with the 341st Training Squadron, the largest canine training center of its kind in the world.

The Department of Defense Military Working Dog Center has courses that train both new dogs and new handlers to work together as sentries and bomb and drug sniffers. The human students spend 11 weeks working with veteran dogs learning how to control and understand their future canine partners. The new dogs work with veteran handlers to learn patrol work and to recognize the scents of drugs and explosives and the behaviors that will tell their handlers they’ve found something.

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“I’m training to work with a special kind of military working dog,” said the 2001 graduate of Chapman Christian Academy, Millbrook. “We don’t do any patrol work or controlled aggression, just searching for explosives. I train side-by-side with the dog I will keep my entire career.”

The four-footed students at the center learn to identify the scents of a wide variety of explosives and drugs, many of which are odorless to humans. The dogs also learn how to patrol and are taught “controlled aggression” — when it is and is not appropriate to bite a human and to let go of someone they have bitten, on command and with no hesitation. For Cartwright, and others at the center, working with canines is a completely different military experience.

“I enjoy dogs and to get to work with them on a daily basis is awesome,” said Cartwright. “Even though it has its dangers at times, overall it’s great.”

Human students at the school learn the basics of their future partners including safety procedures, managing health, the gear they will be using, general record keeping for the animals and the principles of behavioral conditioning.

Then they begin to work with the dogs, learning basic obedience commands for the animals, how to control the animals, procedures for patrolling and searching an area and how to perform as a decoy to keep a working dog in top form.

“Military working dogs save many soldiers, sailors and Marines,” said Cartwright, who has been in the Army for nearly two years and who served in Iraq from 2008-2009. “These dogs are outstanding in what they do and the specialized search dogs are especially good at finding explosives and weapons.”

Cartwright understands that facing ferocious attacks, hammering in constant commands and providing frequent praise will one day pay off with human lives saved on the battlefield.