Photo Information

Military Working Dog Thor, a 5-year-old male Belgian Malinois, engages in bite-work training with his handler, Cpl. Taylor Purdy and Cpl. Antonio Higuera, on the receiving end of the bite, wears protective gear and plays the role of a criminal resisting arrest.

Photo by Kristyn Galvan

Military Working Dog, Thor, Bite-Work Training

16 May 2024 | Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow

The Military Working Dog section aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, California, is housed at the Adam Leigh Cann Canine Facility, named after Sgt. Adam Cann, a Marine who died in Ar Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 during the attack of a suicide bomber. His bomb-sniffing dog, a German Shepherd named Bruno, survived the attack and laid with Sgt Cann until he could be recovered. Bruno later went on to have a new handler before retiring. Cann was the first MWD handler for the Marine Corps to lose his life in combat since the Vietnam war and although he was never stationed at MCLB Barstow, handlers here knew him and requested the kennels be named after him.

Lieutenant Christopher Dixon, Kennel master, accepted a portrait of Cann and Bruno, posing with the on-duty handlers and their partnered dogs on the facilities’ training grounds, on base. Sergeant Matthew Howard, MWD trainer, has been at MCLB Barstow since 2015, where he came in as a new handler and was partnered with a new dog.

“I think it’s a great honor to have named this building after [Cann]," said Howard. “We have an organization called ‘War Dogs’ and every year they get together with every branch of the service and the Military Working Dog handlers. They have a big cookout and one year I was able to meet his mother and his retired dog. It was really moving.”

Typical MWD duties and their human partners include providing base support by guarding the gate, going out on patrols and performing random vehicle checks, where the dog’s detection training comes in handy. When necessary, they also provide support to the Army's Fort Irwin National Training Center, Barstow Police Department California Highway Patrol, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department and medical community of San Bernardino county.

The dogs have a specific work routine every day, which starts early with their breakfast, to give them time to allow their food to settle so they do not get bloat, before they attend to their duties for the day. They must also keep up with monthly trainings, which are carefully logged, so they can maintain their certifications.

“I was 24 years Air Force; I was a dog handler and trainer and kennel master over my 24 years. Then when I retired I was a dog handler here, and then a year and a half ago I became the kennel master. I worked with about four dogs since I’ve been here,” said Dixon.

“It’s very rare for a dog to have the same handler throughout their career, especially once we started having Marine handlers, because they rotate out every three years,” Dixon said.

Due to the rotation of incoming civilian and Marine handlers, the dogs end up regularly changing partners. They will typically retire at around 9-years-old when their health can no longer handle the rigorous lifestyle of being a Military Working Dog.

The process for new dogs and handlers is two-fold, but it typically starts at Lackland Air Force Base, in Texas, which trains the dogs before sending them to MCLB Barstow once they are 2 or 3 years old. Then, when a handler arrives—either a civilian or an assigned Marine—the kennel master and trainer will match the dog and handler based on temperament.

“For the dog, we want them to be curious and independent,” said Dixon. “We hope that they’re a good dog, able to be trained, because if they made it through Lackland that means that they met the minimum requirements and then we advance their training.”

“We’re looking for an intelligent dog with good drive, that can learn on command,” said Howard. “With handlers, it’s pretty much the same thing. We want someone with a lot of motivation. Your dog is a reflection of you; you need to constantly train them. What you get is what you put into the dog.”

“You have to have a lot of motivation, a lot of dedication and a lot of patience. The dogs, they’re like children. So, it takes a lot of maturity, to be a working dog handler,” said Howard.

“I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t have a love for the dogs,” said Dixon. “That’s the reason why I worked with them in the military, and that’s why I’m working with them as a civilian now.”

“They show affection to you, they bond to you, they love you. I just love animals and I just love the satisfaction of being able to train dogs to protect people in law enforcement and secure the base,” said Howard. “To bond with them and be able to teach them, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”