Iron Dawg II: Military working dog handlers compete for “Top Dog”

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- A U.S. Marine and his K9 companion crouch at the starting position, readying for the first task -- securing a seemingly abandoned bread truck. When the signal was given, they take off! After a thorough search and clear, they proceed on to an old pick-up truck to do the same. After which, they advance to three trailers, where the pup takes the low ground under the trailers, and the handler takes the higher route over the trailers, an unusual stipulation because most K9's instinctively stay with their trainer.

An onlooker might view this as a typical training scenario for a military working dog handler and his K9, but on this occasion, it was a competition where spectators gathered to watch military working dog handlers and their K9s, do battle in the second annual, Iron Dawg competition, held at the March Field Air Museum, Sunday, Feb. 17.

The competition involved nine Marines from Camp Pendleton and Miramar, a Marine veteran and an Airman from Beale Air Force Base, partnered with their respective MWDs. They competed for the title of "Top Dawg," by demonstrating their proficiency in tactical obedience, bite work, detection and endurance.

After completing the first phase of the competition, the teams were tasked with running up and over a simulated bridge into an area where the dog was required to detect suspicious scents, such as narcotics or explosives. When detected, the K9 would immediately sit or lay down, signaling its final response, said Master Sgt. Joel Burton, kennel master, 412th Security Forces Squadron, Edwards AFB, an organizer and judge for the competition. If a final response was rendered or the area was clear of suspicious scents, the teams then moved on to the next portion of the competition, the bite work.

"The objective of the bite work is mainly to engage the crowd and add excitement," said Burton. "I looked to ensure the dogs attacked both types of aggressor decoys, one in a bite suit and then transition to the second decoy on the bite sleeve."

When the aggressors confronted the teams, the handler would motion for the K9 to immediately charge and attack. After subduing the first aggressor, another one appeared and the dog had to resituate itself to attack the second foe. The judges score was based on a successful transition from one bite to the next, said Burton.

The endurance and final portion of the competition involved a one-mile run by the handler and K9 as a unit. They had to low crawl through a mud pit with plastic covering to retrieve a red flag. On the return run, during the last quarter mile, the dog handlers had to carry their K9s back to the mud pit, low crawl again and plant their flag at the finish line.

Staff Sgt. Natisha Johnson, military working dog handler, Beale AFB and her dog, Frigo, came from northern California, in permissive temporary duty status, to participate in the Wardog weekend. Johnson and her K9 Frigo have been together since Feb. 14, 2012 and she was thrilled to be competing.

"I'm excited, I don't know what to expect. I'm just going to go and do what I was trained to do," said Johnson. "Also, I wanted to come down here and pay homage to the guys who came before me."
 
That training paid off, Johnson and Frigo won first place in the tactical/OB portion of the competition.

"She challenged the vehicles, used cover and concealment and outperformed the other contestants," remarked one of the judges. "Not running the course tactically, lost points for other competitors. She lost no points in the course."

John Pantoja, Marine veteran, won the ultimate "Top Dawg" honor and placed first in one of the detection categories.

Dawgs on Hawgs, a motorcycle-motorcade of the Patriot Guard, American Legion and others, were also showcased during the Wardog Weekend. They rode to the museum to open the annual War Dog Memorial event, honoring all MWDHs, past and present, Saturday, Feb. 16.

The day continued with the All Services Feed for MWDHs, their families, kennel masters, veterans and others who work closely with the military working dogs.

Jon Hemp, the main organizer for the entire weekend, said the weekend was a great success.

"This is another fine event in a history of fine events. We don't do anything that doesn't turn out to be overwhelming and incredibly enjoyable and rewarding," said Hemp.