PIONEER journalist Koh Eng Beng discovers that training military working dogs is no walk in the park.
I have always been fascinated by dog handlers in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Military Working Dog Unit (MWDU) — how do they get the dogs to cooperate with them? To find out, I spent a day at Mowbray Camp for some hands-on training with the dog handlers.
My instructor was Master Sergeant (MSG) Yeo Zong Zhe, 29, the Training 2nd-in-charge in MWDU. The first business of the day was to take care of the dog's business — clearing the poop and cleaning the kennel. A dog handler is responsible for the dog's living environment and hygiene.
I also had to learn to groom the dogs. My "customer" was Millie, an energetic Labrador Retriever who couldn't stop running about. I struggled to hold her firmly, but when I started brushing her golden fur, she relaxed and kept still.
On the scent
I learnt that Millie is a sniffer dog, trained to detect hidden drugs, explosives and firearms.
"We have hidden a packet of ‘drugs' in the bunk. It's fake but it smells like the real thing. Guide Millie to find it," instructed MSG Yeo.
I unhooked Millie's leash and shouted: "Go!" She dashed and started sniffing in every corner of the room.
Her movements were seemingly haphazard, but there was a pattern — she was going from bed to bed methodically. Even then, I had to pay attention in case she missed out any areas, which she did. "Come back, Millie!" I yelled repeatedly, to no avail.
MSG Yeo and another dog handler Lance Corporal (LCP) E Avanish had to step in to help. I had yet to bond with Millie so I struggled to get her to listen to me.
After a minute or so, Millie started sniffing excitedly at one particular cupboard. She then sat down — her signal for "suspicious item found here". I opened the cupboard and found the packet of "drugs" MSG Yeo had hidden earlier.
The next station was basic obedience command training. Using voice and hand signals, I would command a working dog to sit, walk, turn and more.
This time round, my partner was a dark, brooding German Shepherd named Fabia. She was muzzled for safety, but it only made her look more intimidating. I was on high alert as she walked towards me.
"Don't be so stiff. Open your palms, let her smell you," MSG Yeo said as Fabia came near. "It's important for the dog to get familiar with you; otherwise, she may see you as a stranger," he explained.
I had to wear protective arm guards and a long-sleeved top for my safety.
I started the training with simple, straightforward commands like "heel" (stand at attention), "sit", "move" and "stop". After a few tries, I was able to get her to follow my commands. Getting Fabia to make a turn was the most challenging.
I tried to get Fabia to turn right by tapping the side of my left thigh with my left hand, and shouting "heel… err… left". Fabia took two steps, and stopped to give me a puzzled look. It was as though she was saying: "Seriously, bro… what talking you?"
Dog-handler LCP Luke Tan, 19, said that the most challenging part of their two-week basic dog handling training was to bond with their dogs in a short period of time.
I had only 30 minutes with Fabia, so I reckoned I didn't do too badly.
The highlight for the day had to be role-playing as an intruder. I had to put on a baiting sleeve — a hard plastic armguard wrapped in a thick burlap material.
"Don't show your (unprotected) left arm to her and keep that arm behind your back, otherwise even I can't help you," MSG Yeo warned.
LCP Tan then commanded his guard dog Kiti to stop me. In a few seconds, the Belgian Shepherd sprinted towards me and sank her teeth into my baiting sleeve.
Even through the sleeve, I could feel the force of her bite. Her aggression startled me.
I tried to stand my ground but she was unrelenting; I ended up being pulled around in circles. Had this been for real, I am sure the bad guy would be bloodied.
It's like dating
I realised that working with military dogs is a lot like dating: You have to bring her out for daily walks (read: romance her), feed her (read: bring her for candlelit dinners), clean her kennel (read: do sweet things for her), and always love her in sickness and in health.
Time to ask for another "date" with the MWDU.