In 2007, Jonathan Bourgeois was on patrol in Iraq when heard the call.
Up ahead, a military working dog had detected the scent of explosives.
"That day, they saved my squad from being blown up," he said.
Bourgeois, an Air Force staff sergeant, now works as a military dog handler at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. He traces his passion for the fearless, four-legged warriors to that roadside conversion.
"Ever since then," he said, "I've been hooked."
This passion is not uncommon. Up the road at Fort Eustis, Army Sgt. Derrick Gordon pursued a dog-handler's career with the persistence of a tracking hound. A military police officer by training, he filed a request to transfer to K-9 duty. When he didn't hear back, he filed another one. Then he filed another.
After 23 requests, the Army realized that Gordon wasn't going away.
"My first sergeant was like, all right, you got it," he recalled with a smile.
'Not a nine-to-five job'
The relationship between man and dog in combat is as close as it gets, say dog handlers at Langley and Eustis, most of whom have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Walker, the kennel master at Fort Eustis, looks for the qualities displayed by Bourgeois and Gordon when evaluating whether someone can train and handle a military working dog. Handlers do not work nine-to-five jobs, he said. It is less a career, more a calling.
"They probably know their dog better than they know their kids, because of all the time they spend here, which makes them a great team," he said.
Dogs on the battlefield are not new. Persians, Greeks, Assyrians and Babylonians employed ferocious dogs as shock troops. Legend has it that at the Battle of Marathon, one Athenian dog became such a hero, its likeness was included on victory monuments.
Today's military working dog is far more sophisticated, the product of months of training.
The U.S. military considers the Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd and Dutch Shepherd the best breeds for patrol and detection work. All dogs go through something akin to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tex., which handles the job for all of the services. After going through Lackland, the dogs arrive at installations such as Eustis and Langley for more refined work.
On Oct. 29, Langley welcomed a bounding, tongue-wagging Belgian Malinois dubbed Oopey, pronounced "Opie." She came under the advanced tutelage of Bourgeois, who is now a veteran dog handler.
"She had a lot of puppy in her, and that kind of interferes with retaining stuff sometimes," Bourgeois said.
Oopey needed to learn new skills as well as receive remedial training. Bourgeois selected one day to teach something new and another day for remedial skills to bring her back up to standard. All the while, he was conscious that Oopey needed her "me" time -- moments in the day when she got to be a dog.
If it sounds like raising a small child, that's because it is. Like other handlers, Bourgeois employs voice inflection to send signals. He has a happy-sounding, high-pitched "praise voice." When Oopey doesn't hear the praise voice, she knows something is wrong.
"I hate to say it," he said, "but when I potty-trained my two-year-old, I did the same things that I do for Oopey to train her."
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