SOUTH CHINA SEA -- Every Marine is a rifleman – except maybe the Devil Dogs with a cold wet nose, four paws and a wagging tail. What they lack in opposable thumbs capable of flipping a selector switch to fire, they make up for with noses 10,000 times more sensitive than a human being’s. That, and they’re just plain fun to be around. They also help save lives – ask any Marine military working dog handler since man’s best friend first went to war with the Marines in WWII.
“Whenever I pictured the Marine Corps, I pictured it at a time of war and the dog handlers were at the front lines,” said Dustin Johnson, a corporal and dog handler with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “They were out there actually doing things, making things happen, saving lives – preventing improvised explosive devices from going off. They brought people home safe.”
Johnson, a native of Liberty, Mississippi, joined the Marine Corps in March 2015, his heart set on being a dog handler. After nine months serving as a Marine Corps military policeman, he earned a chance, taking his first steps into the kennels at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan in June 2016.
The MWD handlers initially work every day for up to six months doing on the job training – cleaning kennels, feeding their partners and learning the tools of the trade until they earn a spot at the Basic Handlers Course, according to Johnson, who is currently embarked aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp with his partner, Ziva.
Being K-9 is not easy, said Johnson. It’s a lot of reading and psychology, knowing your dog. It takes a lot of work to get into the mind of a dog, and handlers have limited opportunities to prove they have what it takes.
“When you get your first dog, you’re kind of nervous,” said Johnson. “You’ve just learned all these new skills and you’re trying to prove yourself and show your worth to the senior handlers.”
Marine MWD handlers come from all walks of life. Their common experience is training as basic military policemen, or women, before applying to serve in a K-9 unit. Jesica Fleming, another corporal and dog handler with the 31st MEU, took a slightly different path to her current duties with her partner, Sjonnie, a 4-year-old German Shepherd.
“Before joining the Marine Corps I trained dogs for the police, the military and other government contracts,” said Fleming. “Most of the time I was behind the scenes training the dogs before the handlers got them. Now, not only do I have to handle and pay attention to my dog and read his behavior while I’m working him, I also have a full kit and rifle. I’m looking for visual indicators of IEDs or any possible threats. It’s a lot more to do at one time.”
This is exactly what she wanted when she enlisted in July 2015, according to Fleming. She put her career on hold for a chance to serve as a dog handler. Although she misses working with multiple different dogs, she loves building a special bond with Sjonnie.
“Sjonnie is the only dog I’ve ever had in the Marine Corps, and I’ll have him until my time is up,” said Fleming. “I love the bond that you have when you work with just one dog and seeing how he is learning things and how we’re growing as a team.”
Dog handlers put in a lot of extra hours to build their proficiency with their partners. Feeding, exercise, and of course, poop patrol, give handlers a full slate day-to-day, according to Fleming. Marines take notice, offering smiles and asking to pet Sjonnie, but it is all a part of her role as a handler, said Fleming.
“You have to be able to carry your gear, your dog’s gear, water for both of you and be able to keep up,” said Fleming, a native of Wellington, Alabama. “After it’s all said and done and you proved yourself to the guys you were working with that you can do your job and you’re good at it – it’s rewarding to make a positive impact.”
Fleming has enjoyed her assignment with the 31st MEU – the forward-deployed posture of the unit, the chance to showcase their capabilities working with different units during training in garrison and while deployed aboard the Wasp – experience and time builds cohesion and technical proficiency, according to Fleming.
“We’ve been working together for a year and a half. He knows what I expect of him and I’m constantly finding new things for us to work on and we’re continually learning and becoming smoother as a team.”
Handlers rely on their dogs, just as MWDs rely on their handlers. There is a special trust and confidence within their relationship, they are able to read each other and react together. At the end of the day, good or bad, they rely on each other to be there. They will never go a single day without each other’s companionship, according to Johnson, summing up handlers’ special bond with their dogs.
“No matter what, no matter where you go, you always have somebody you know,” said Johnson.