NEWTOWN, Conn. - In the tradition of Stubby, the legendary war dog, and the brave Connecticut men he accompanied into battle in World War I, the Connecticut 928th Military Working Dog Detachment is ready and motivated for its missions.
The 928th, part of the Connecticut Army National Guard, is a full-time unit manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is the only military working dog unit in the United States that is part of the Army Guard/Reserve component.
"Soldiers come to work every day and eagerly await new assignments," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Fountaine, kennel master and 928th commander. "Between assignments, the 928th teams train each day on current and new training certifications," he said.
Four dog teams - four dogs and four handlers - train at a minimum of four hours on odor detection and four hours on patrol and obedience each week. The time handlers spend with their dogs is more time than any other unit in the U.S. "Our Soldiers are not here for short tours,” Fountaine said. “They're here for their careers. They have bonds with their dogs that won't be found elsewhere."
Two of the teams are Army Forces Command-certified patrol explosives detective dogs, trained in explosives tracking; one patrol drug detective dog (PEDD), certified in narcotics detection and one is re-training to be a tactical explosives detection dog. The unit is fully staffed with Soldiers, but has a few canine partner vacancies.
Training a dog takes a great deal of time before the unit receives the canine member of the team. The detachment has three German shepherds and one Belgian Malinois named Balou. Balou's handler, Army Sgt. Kimberlee Ruppar, joined the detachment following a 2013 deployment to Afghanistan. She said she feels very fortunate to work with such a dedicated organization and with Balou.
"Members of the 928th receive such strong support for their training and readiness from their leadership and the result is fantastic morale across the board," Ruppar said. "Enthusiasm travels down leash," Ruppar said. "When we're feeling great, the dogs are feeling great." The teams have to be aware of the intangible factors of dog-handling, Fountaine said. "It translates into other areas of their readiness."
Most of the 928th dog teams have deployed. The detachment traveled to Balikatan in the Philippines for narcotics, explosives and combat tracking training in 2012, and the kennel master and three PEDD teams deployed to Qatar in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2013.
In May, unit members and dogs will deploy to train with the Uruguayan military in support of their continuing narcotics/terrorism prevention mission as part of the Connecticut National Guard's State Partnership Program. Missions include supporting the patrol and explosives detection mission at the Boston Marathon, where two teams supported the Massachusetts National Guard and Boston Police.
The teams have provided military working dog support to 25 presidential missions since the kennel began operations in 2007, and they supported Pope Benedict's visit to Yankee Stadium in 2008. The 928th is currently working on new tracking training certifications.
"We're doing everything we can to ensure future readiness," Fountaine said. Balou's readiness level may exceed that of the other dogs: in 2012, in New York City, the Belgian Malinois was awarded an American Kennel Club Award for national service.
The 928th members are proud of her. Her medal and plaque hang in their detachment's common area.
"According to the Army, Soldiers and dogs are all functional pieces of equipment," Fountaine said. "Here, that's different. Our Soldiers know that, and the dogs know that. That translates into success."