Tucked behind Division Hill, out of sight from travelers moving along Nash Boulevard, is a gated facility that is home to the 8th Military Working Dog (MWD) Detachment.
Even in still wind and low traffic rumble, not a bark or growl is discernible from that distance.
So when the MWD teams are training, or conducting annual certification like they did Nov. 4-7, it goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the Fort Drum community. However, it is of the utmost importance to their profession.
“This certification legitimizes the military working dog team,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Citrullo, 8th MWD Detachment kennel master. “When our dogs go out there and they find drugs, or they find bombs or they have to bite a subject, this certification validates their training and ability to carry out those missions, and it’s in accordance with the law.”
Citrullo said that, during certification, the military working dog teams have to meet certain criteria in patrol, obedience and detection.
“If the team performs to the standard, then they are certified and they are allowed to provide installation security, VIP sweeps and other missions,” he said.
Obedience is the dog’s ability to follow commands – sit, heel, stay – and how well they maneuver through an obedience course. Patrol testing involves bite work, verifying the dog can bite and release on command. The MWD also has to demonstrate proficiency in pursuing and apprehending a subject.
When canines were first employed by the U.S. Army during World War II, their main purpose was sentry duty. As the war progressed, so did their training. Dogs were developed as tactical scouts and messengers.
Eventually, their skill set included mine detection but early training resulted in relatively low success rates. The reason was that dogs were being trained to determine mine placement based on terrain appearance – whether the ground was disturbed by human means. Only later did it become known that the military working dog’s sense of smell is acute enough to distinguish the chemical components of explosives.
During certification, the military working dog is tested on its ability to sniff that out.
“Detection is all based off scent, and they are required to find a certain number of aids,” Citrullo said. “We’re testing the dog’s capability with his nose to finding certain odors – we have explosive odors and we have drug odors. “We’re also testing the maturity and reliability of the handler.”
The teams are able to certify within the same facility where they train, with a U.S. Army Forces Command certification authority present to evaluate them.
Spc. Sadie Vollendorf and her MWD, Ricky, were among the four teams going for certification. Even having experienced this a few times before and having full confidence in their abilities, she said it can still be nerve-wracking.
“It’s certification, and it’s a big deal, so it is easy to get nervous,” Vollendorf said. “But once we get going, all that goes away and we focus on doing what we have to do. It’s always rewarding once it’s over and you get that certification.”
Also, Vollendorf said if she appears nervous, Ricky will pick up on that.
“We like to say that emotions travel down leash, so if I’m nervous or scared then the dog can easily pick up on that,” she said. “Or if I’m excited, the dog knows. So, a lot of times you put your emotions aside and get in that headspace that we’re here to do our job. That’s one of the things that takes time for handlers to get used to.”
Vollendorf said that she and Ricky have been together for the past four years after they were paired while stationed at Fort Myer, near Washington, D.C. She said that Ricky is someone she can trust with her life, and has proven to be dependable over the years.
“Ricky is very energetic,” she said. “He’s seven but acts like a puppy all the time. He loves to work, he knows when he’s going to work, and he’s always ready. He’s also very protective of me.”
The trust and compatibility between dog handler and canine partner is developed through what is called rapport building.
“If there is any friction between them, then you’re not going to have a very good team,” Citrullo said. “They have certain tasks that they train on, but the bonding process is entirely up to that team. There’s no guideposts on how to get there, or how long it should take. It’s all dependent on them.”
Spc. Isreal Castillo has been with his dog Lee for nearly four years, all at Fort Drum. He said that it was the day-to-day interactions that helped forge the connection.
“For us, it was playing fetch, grooming him, going for walks,” he said. “And then, honestly, you start to pick up on your dog’s personality and they kind of grow on you. They actually start to learn you, as cliché as that might sound, and they’re just always there for you.”
Castillo said that a MWD team is never really off-duty.
“We have full access to our dogs 24/7,” he said. “Even on the weekends, I can come here and just hang out with him. We’re just best friends.”
Spc. Kassan Santiago, teamed with Condor, earned some recognition this summer after winning the drug detection event at the 2nd annual Top Dog event on post. The 8th MWD Detachment hosted the four-event competition, which included a National Guard and local law enforcement teams.
Santiago described Condor as his best friend and battle buddy. They developed their bond just from working together every day. Santiago initially found Condor to be a bit lazy, but after a few rapport-building days they seemed to connect.
“He’s happy and I’m happy,” he said. “We’re just meant to be.”
Like the 10th Mountain Division (LI), the 8th MWD Detachment is a highly deployable FORSCOM unit, which is also why certification is so critical.
“We currently have a couple of teams downrange and we’re gearing up to send a couple more, so they also have to be certified to support global operations,” Citrullo said. “When a team deploys, they serve as force multipliers for bigger units. They’re in front of formations, doing base security, route clearance – taking care of as much as we can ahead of those units so they get their mission done.”
Citrullo said there are 14 MWD teams assigned to the 8th MWD Detachment, 91st Military Police Battalion, 16th MP Brigade, but he has never seen them together all at one time.
“We get a substantial amount of deployments for such a small unit.” he said. “I’ve never had 100 percent of my personnel here on the ground. There is always somebody, somewhere.”