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Face of Defense: Marine Dog Handlers Lead the Pack

By Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Shaehmus Sawyer Marine Corps Recruiting Command

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va., Sept. 9, 2016 — A Marine looks down at his dog and confidently commands him to sit. The four-year-old German shepherd complies, looks to his handler for approval and awaits the next set of directions.

When the handler makes eye-contact with the dog, smiles and a pats him on the head, the 76-pound military-grade trained living machine delightfully wags his tail, looks straight ahead and patiently waits to hear his handler’s voice again.

The Marine Corps’ military occupational specialty 5811 -- Military Police -- is a challenging job. But MPs who consider themselves alpha dogs might have the opportunity to work with man’s best friend by competing to become a 5812, Military Working Dog Handler.

“It’s definitely a job you shouldn’t take for granted,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Shawn R. Edens, a kennel master with the security battalion at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virgina. “How many people get to go to work and work with dogs? That’s a pretty cool job.”

Competitive Assignment

Edens was a lance corporal attached to 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, 3rd Law Enforcement Battalion, at Marine Corps Base Smedley D. Butler in Okinawa, Japan, when he earned the title of dog handler after winning a peer-to-peer competition board, soon afterward he received orders to depart for Quantico.

Peer-to-peer competition boards are commonly held throughout the Marine Corps in order to allow exceptional Marines to compete against one another answering questions about the Marine Corps and their MOS. Although competition on the board is not a requirement to earn the dog handler title, it is typically one avenue the MP community uses to reward Marines with the sought-after opportunity.

After recruit training, prospective MPs attend the MOS school at Fort Leonard Wood, an Army base in Missouri, and then ship to their first duty station. Marines who are selected to become dog handlers will attend the Military Working Dog Basic Handler Course, located at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for a six week course that will qualify the Marine as a basically-trained handler.

“The Marine Corps grooms Marines before they leave to the school house to ensure (they’re successful) in the school,” said Marine Corps Cpl. Braxton H. Rico, a military working dog handler with the security battalion at MCB Quantico.

Rico was on a training operation when he saw dog handlers in the field working with the MPs and realized he wanted to become a dog handler. He won a board in March 2015 and met Edens. He also met Segal, the dog Edens last handled, who is now Rico’s first dog.

 “I worked with different dogs at the schoolhouse before I came to Quantico,” Rico said. “Segal has different temperaments than the dog I worked with at Lackland and made some challenges for me. Sergeant Edens helped me overcome those challenges to better myself and my work with Segal.”

Upon Rico’s arrival to the kennels at Quantico, Edens only had a month to train and teach him about Segal’s temperament. Since then, Edens has progressed from dog handler, to trainer, to kennel master -- which is a staff sergeant’s billet.

“As a kennel master, I mostly coordinate events, trainings, and ensure responsibilities are upheld in the kennel,” Edens said. “I’m past the dog handling phase, but my love for the job is still the handler side.”

A Dog’s Life

Edens believes Marines who want to become a dog handler need to compete on a board as soon as they can. He feels that the more time the handlers have with dogs, the better understanding they will have of dog handling.

“Once you get into the canine community, you are in a specialized billet that takes people years to attain,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it. In the end, you get to work with dogs and earn the pride of being a Marine.”

Dogs and dog handlers from around the U.S. and overseas are trained at Lackland, Edens said. They are trained to patrol, scout, search buildings and detect either narcotics or explosives. Training methods take into account each dog’s natural personality.

“By no means is this job easy,” he said. “You’re in charge of this dog, who basically has a mind of a three year old, so you’re constantly keeping an eye on him while ensuring you take care of him. We need to bathe them, feed them, play with them, exercise with them and keep their medical records up-to-date.”

Even though schedules fluctuate and dog handlers are on call during weekends, they love the work, Rico said, adding that he loves the people he works with and the challenges associated with training the dogs.

Edens also said he loves training dogs. Both Marines said the most gratifying thing for them is seeing dogs succeed after countless hours of work while being able to notice and fix problems dogs have during training.

“It’s like watching your kid grow up,” Edens said, a married father of a newborn daughter.

Edens reenlisted November 2014 and Rico submitted a reenlistment package last month, hoping to continue his military career.

“I get to work with dogs on a daily basis. How many people get to say that?” Rico said. “Being around the people I work with and working with the dogs makes it feel like I’m not actually at work. If you want to be an MP, do all you can to get into the canine community. Stick out amongst everyone else, work hard and you’ll see yourself as a dog handler, like me.”

Distribution channels: Military