MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. - A Marine looks down at his dog and confidently commands him to sit. The four-year-old German shepherd complies, looks to his handler for approval and awaits the next set of directions. When the handler makes eye-contact with the dog, smiles and a pats him on the head, the 76-pound military-grade trained living machine delightfully wags his stubby tail, looks straight ahead and patiently waits to hear his handler’s voice again.
The Marine Corps’ military occupational specialty 5811, Military Police, is a challenging job. MPs who consider themselves alpha dogs have the opportunity to work with man’s best friend in the MOS 5812, Military Working Dog Handler.
“It’s definitely a job you shouldn’t take for granted,” said Sgt. Shawn R. Edens, a kennel master with Security Battalion aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. “How many people get to go to work and work with dogs? That’s a pretty cool job.”
He served as a lance corporal attached to 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, 3rd Law Enforcement Battalion, aboard Marine Corps Base Smedley D. Butler, Okinawa, Japan, when he earned the title of dog handler after winning a peer-to-peer competition board.
These peer-to-peer competition boards are commonly held throughout the Marine Corps in order to allow exceptional Marines to compete against one another answering knowledge questions about the Marine Corps and their MOS. Although competition on the board is not a requirement to earn the dog handler title, it is typically one avenue the MP community uses to reward Marines with the sought-after opportunity.
Edens was one of the fortunate Marines who won a board and earned the opportunity to become a dog handler. Having won out over his peers hand-chosen to compete on the board, Edens received orders to MCB Quantico and left Okinawa in December 2013.
If someone wants to become a dog handler, the first step is earning the title, Marine. Once recruit training is completed, applicants who enlisted for the MP career field will attend MOS school at Fort Leonard Wood, an army base in Missouri, and then ship to their first duty station. Once on station, the common route to becoming a dog handler is to win one of the command’s local boards. Marines who are selected to become dog handlers will attend the Military Working Dog Basic Handler Course, located at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, for a six week course that will qualify the Marine as a basically-trained handler.
“The Marine Corps grooms Marines before they leave to the school house to ensure (they’re successful) in the school,” said Cpl. Braxton H. Rico, a military working dog handler with Security Battalion aboard MCB Quantico.
Rico was on a training operation when he saw dog handlers in the field working with the MPs. It was at that point that he realized he wanted to become a dog handler. Rico was assigned to the same command Edens fell under in Okinawa at that time, but left for Quantico in March 2015, where he won a board for dog handling and met Edens. He also met Segal, the dog Edens last handled, but is now Rico’s first.
"I worked with different dogs at the school house before I came to Quantico,” said Rico. “Segal has different temperaments than the dog I worked with at Lackland and made some challenges for me. Sgt. Edens helped me overcome those challenges to better myself and my work with Segal.”
Upon Rico’s arrival to the kennels at Quantico, Edens only had a month to directly train and teach him about Segal’s temperament. Since that time, Edens has progressed from being a dog handler, to a trainer, to a kennel master—which is a staff sergeant’s billet.
“As a kennel master, I mostly coordinate events, trainings, and ensure responsibilities are upheld in the kennel,” said Edens. “I’m past the dog handling phase, but my love for the job is still the handler side.”
Edens believes Marines who want to become a dog handler need to compete on a board as soon as they can. He feels that the more time the handlers have with dogs, the better understanding they will have of dog handling.
“Once you get into the canine community, you are in a specialized billet that takes people years to attain,” said Edens. “It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it. In the end, you get to work with dogs and earn the pride of being a Marine.”
Dogs from around the U.S. and overseas are trained at Lackland like the Marines are, said Edens. They are trained to patrol, scout, search buildings, and detect either narcotics or explosives. How to train dogs boils down to the dogs’ natural personality and how they are raised and trained.
“By no means is this job easy,” said Edens. “You’re in charge of this dog who basically has a mind of a three year old, so you’re constantly keeping an eye on him while ensuring you take care of him. We need to bathe them, feed them, play with them, exercise with them and keep their medical records up-to-date.”
Even though schedules fluctuate and dog handlers are on call during weekends, they love the work, said Rico. He personally loves the challenges associated with training the dogs and the people he works with.
Edens also said he loves training dogs. Both Marines said the most gratifying thing for them is seeing dogs succeed after countless hours of work have been put into them while being able to notice and fix problems dogs have during training.
“It’s like watching your kid grow up,” said Edens, a married father of a newborn daughter.
Edens reenlisted November 2014 and Rico submitted a reenlistment package last month, hoping to continue his military career.
“I get to work with dogs on a daily basis. How many people get to say that?” said Rico. “Being around the people I work with and working with the dogs makes it feel like I’m not actually at work. If you want to be an MP, do all you can to get into the canine community. Stick out amongst everyone else, work hard and you’ll see yourself as a dog handler, like me.”