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Elite military dogs find bombs, take down bad guys
Trainer Mike Ritland cultivates a unique combination of olfactory skill and hunt drive in special forces canines.
Mike Ritland is no ordinary dog trainer. Before founding Trikos International, his private business, Ritland was a K9 trainer for the U.S. Navy SEALs. He now breeds and raises “protection” dogs for private individuals and government agencies, focusing especially on special operations forces for the U.S. military.
Once fully trained and deployed with various military units, Ritland’s dogs’ acute olfactory sense allows them to help clear improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and track enemy combatants. In addition to having incredible noses, these dogs have helped subdue some of the nastiest of bad guys, from Al-Qaeda insurgents in Iraq to Taliban forces in the mountains of Afghanistan.
“Belgian Malinois are invincible”
Ritland notes that his dogs, mostly Belgian Malinois, feel invincible—a necessary attribute for the job (one specimen, Samson, is shown at right). This breed combines two essential qualities needed to be useful to Navy SEALs, he says. They have a highly developed sense of smell, and they’re readily willing to be assertive and to bite. Plus, their athleticism and endurance are extraordinary, and their fearsome appearance helps with the intimidation factor.
“Since their primary tasks are to detect specific odors and assist in capturing bad guys, their ability and willingness to do those two things make them ideal candidates,” Ritland says. “And I don’t just mean they have those two traits—they have them in spades.”
The object of Ritland’s training program is to take full advantage of a dog’s innate ability to detect odors. Estimates vary, but many experts claim that a dog’s nose is 1,000 times more sensitive than a human’s. According to research conducted at Auburn University, dogs have more than 220 million olfactory receptors in their noses, while humans have only 5 million.
Auburn researchers also note that dogs’ sensitivity to DNMB (2,3-dimethyl-2,3-dinitrobutane), a detection taggant, is greater than 500 parts per trillion; therefore a dog can detect explosive compounds such as nitroglycerin when only 10 million parts per billion are present.
Dogs are valuable detectors not just because they have such an effective sense of smell, but also because they can discriminate between odors, Ritland says. For example, while a person simply smells the offensive odor of a skunk, a dog can split out the specific chemicals that make up that particular odor. Specifically, the dogs Ritland trains need to detect explosives from among a host of other scents. “We can pinpoint very specific target odors and have the dogs find those and only those amongst a mix of other odors,” Ritland says.
These dogs are effective at tracking down people for the same reason they are capable at other detection work, Ritland explains. “Detecting humans is no different than detecting a specific explosive,” he says. “A tracking dog may have to track a specific individual among thirty other people that walk through a given area, but they stay on the individual. Why? Because every single individual human has its signature, a distinct and individual specific odor.”
Looking for a nose
When describing what he looks for in a dog, Ritland says he wants a nose—and the rest of the dog that comes with it. “That’s not literally true, of course, but it comes close to describing the priority placed on a dog’s olfactory ability,” he says in his book Trident K-9 Warriors (2013, St. Martin’s Press). Ritland calls a dog’s ability and desire to find an object that’s not visible its “hunt drive.” If an object is thrown into an area where the dog can’t see it, Ritland wants that dog to use its nose and not its eyes to locate the object.
Robert Gillette, DVM, MSE, DACVSMR, is formerly director of the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn, which provides explosive substance detection dogs, called “vapor wake detection dogs,” to the military and U.S. law enforcement. Gillette says that not only does a dog have to be able to identify an odor, it must be able to maintain focus over time in challenging circumstances. “The olfactory cells can identify something, but the brain has to be cognizant as to whether the odor is important or not,” says Gillette, who is currently with Veterinary Specialty Center of Buffalo Grove, Ill. “And they also have to have the temperament to want to do the task.”
Many research discoveries have been made recently regarding a dog’s ability to handle work, Gillette says. While people used to think dogs could work for only a certain amount of time, “that’s because we never worked them for longer than that,” he says. “As the world has become more understanding of sports medicine, that knowledge has begun to be applied to the dog world. We’ve seen some advancement in the ability of dogs to deploy to different regions, their ability to handle difficult physical efforts. That’s truly exciting.”
Training the ultimate elite fighting dog
Ritland, who himself previously deployed to Iraq with these trained dogs, appeared earlier this year on 60 Minutes. “When you step outside that wire [off base], it’s like crossing the border to hell on earth!” he told the interviewer. “You’ve got that feeling that the very next step I take may be my last. When you see these dogs operate in the capacity that they can—using their nose and finding explosives in the manner that they do—that level of comfort absolutely skyrockets. You know that you’ve got one of the best-trained, best-equipped, most capable working dogs out in front of you that has your back.”
Ritland (shown at right in an undisclosed location) trains his dogs to do the same tasks as those expected of special forces personnel. The dogs can jump out of planes and helicopters; they can free fall with a person; they can rappel, swim, ride on boats and ride on a soldier’s back. “There is not really an environment we operate in where you can’t bring a dog,” Ritland says. The dogs are trained to walk over steel grates, to walk over wire, to run under barbed wire, to walk on gravel, sand and rocks, and to navigate physical obstacles.
“I don’t know many people, such as Ritland and the troops he trains, who can hold a Malinois on their chest, leap from an airplane in free fall, and not allow the dog to become frightened,” says Ritland’s veterinarian, Wally Kraft, DVM, of Paris, Texas. “It is amazing.”
Making the ultimate choice
Ritland says working dogs utilize both nature and nurture. And while training—or nurture—counts for a lot, genetics—nature—is even more critical. Ritland looks for a particular non-self-preserving genetic trait. “It’s excruciatingly rare for obvious reasons,” Ritland says. “When we have a dog that does possess that trait, it is something we cherish, we value, we try to recreate through our breeding programs.”
When pushed, dogs make an absolute choice in their behavior, Ritland says. No matter how much training the dog has received, no matter what its ability is to pass certain tests, at some point the dog will choose based on genetics and nothing else. Ritland’s goal is to put the dog in positions that force it to make that choice. “I’m going to push him both mentally and physically and give him the choice to say, ‘I’m going to live to fight another day’ [retreat], or ‘Today is my day and you’re going to be mine.’” The latter is what Ritland is looking for.
“You can’t train a dog to stay and fight; you can’t make him do it—he has to make that choice,” Ritland says. “You can take a good dog and make him stronger. But when it comes down to making that ultimate choice, that’s purely genetic. That’s what we look for.”
Special operations dogs
Ritland’s understanding of dogs is unusual, Kraft says—he can relate to animals, perceive their attitudes, select exceptional individuals, understand their abilities and enhance their drive for the difficult tasks they’ll have to perform. “He trains dogs to be their very best,” Kraft says.
Ritland and Kraft have been working together for 10 years, and most of the problems Kraft assists with are dog-to-dog bites—although Ritland and his staff break up fights almost immediately when they occur, Kraft says. Most of the dogs are extremely healthy, thanks to Ritland’s excellent care, he says.
“I’ve done some minor surgeries, a C-section on a bitch with dystocia, but most of what I see is health certificates and physical exams,” he says. “I can honestly tell you I cannot remember Ritland presenting me with a sick dog.”
Kraft says the dogs Ritland trains for the Navy SEALs are not just good, they’re great. “Ritland has related to me how many times these dogs have saved others’ lives, the troops working with these dogs in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he says.
Ritland says the dogs have even given U.S. forces an advantage in the deceptive tactics battle. While members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and other jihadists have attempted to disguise explosive odors, his dogs’ ability to “focus” on a particular odor and identify it—despite the presence of other odors and the minute concentration of the target odor—makes them virtually impossible to deceive.
While the training is intense and the combat situations can be grueling, Ritland says that, for both himself and the dogs, “this is more like fun than anything resembling work.” In order to form a team with the dogs (rather than dominating them), Ritland offers abundant praise when they do things right: finding the ball in the tub of bottles, getting to the food dish and so on. “Praise is essential to getting these dogs, or any dog for that matter, to do the things we want them to do,” he writes in Trident K-9 Warriors. “The praise can come verbally or nonverbally and preferably both ways—with words and actions.”
Kraft affirms that Ritland never uses negative tactics with a dog. “The basis for his training is positive reinforcement,” he says. “Obviously, though it is difficult to comprehend, biting for these dogs is like playing games. When they do it good, they get to play with a ball—part of his positive reinforcement training.”
Training dogs to be of service to people is Ritland’s job and also his passion. “There’s the old expression about it not being the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that really matters,” he says. “Every day for the past few years I’ve seen the truth of that on display. These dogs are all heart, different in some ways from the millions of pet dogs in this country, and even more deserving of the care and attention lavished on them. Actually, as far as I’m concerned, they can’t get enough respect, love, and attention.
“I’ve always admired how little dogs ask in return for all that they do for us,” Ritland continues. “In that way they’re like the servicemen and women in all branches of our military. These dogs are not only our best friends, they embody what’s best about us—the courage, loyalty and heart of true warriors.”
Ed Kane, PhD, is a researcher and consultant in animal nutrition. He is an author and editor on nutrition, physiology and veterinary medicine with a background in horses, pets and livestock. Kane is based in Seattle.