At Fort Meade, Military Dogs Compete for Growling Rights

Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Burney and his German shepherd, Gerco, who are from Fort Myer, crawl through the obstacle course.
Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Burney and his German shepherd, Gerco, who are from Fort Myer, crawl through the obstacle course. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

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By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

This was not your typical dog show. No fluffing or hairspray or pedigree points here.

Day four of a week-long competition among military dogs in the Washington region included a grueling three-mile run through the woods, an obstacle course that forces dog and handler to crawl on their bellies and a 30-second window to pump 10 rounds through a distant bull's-eye.

They call it the Iron Dog triathlon, and it is there, handlers say, that the toughest, most grizzled military dogs in the area get a chance to be all that they can be.

The competition raged all week at Fort Meade between 24 teams of dogs and handlers from Fort Myer, Fort Lee, Fort Belvoir, Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.

The first few days, the teams competed for points in narcotics and explosion detection events, during which K-9 units tried to locate anything from TNT strapped on car engine blocks to stashes of marijuana and cocaine planted in a warehouse.

Then on Wednesday came the "hardest-hitting" dog contest, a favorite among the soldiers, in which the dogs are given a short distance to build up speed and launch into a bite and tackle on a pretend suspect.

"You should have seen some of them flying. I mean, there were some that just flat-out took the guy down," said Sgt. 1st Class Claudesedric Grace, a canine expert and judge from the provost marshal's office at Fort McNair.

Thursday was the crucial day, with the week's most rigorous event: the triathlon. The competition started at 7:45 a.m. as the contestants -- 18 units in all -- lined up at the starting point in staggered shifts for the timed race.

By the time they reached the obstacle course, about midway through the event, canines and humans were starting to show signs of wear.

It's under pressure and exhaustion that the strengths and weaknesses emerge, said judge Hans P. Freimarck, the Army's program manager for military dogs, who has worked with canines for 26 years.

"The young kids, they take what they're taught as gospel, but what they learn is they have to adjust to the situation," he said. "I'm looking for team unison: how well they work together, if either handler or dog are overly dominating the relationship."

Arriving at one obstacle, several dogs balked at the metal bar hurdle they were supposed to jump.

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