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The dogs of war: where canine soldiers are trained

Tier1 K-9 co-owner Kevin Whitenect, a former soldier, works with Kali, a Belgian Malinois during training at an unnamed location in Ontario.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The soldier advances through the damp, misty forest, her senses piqued by the slightest sign of danger, her taut muscles gliding visibly beneath desert-coloured fur.

Kali is a dog, but she's trained like a soldier. She is taught to move as efficiently as possible - a life-or-death skill in combat situations - and even here, on a routine training session in the woods of Southern Ontario, not a move is wasted. Coming up against a craggy wall of wet, black shale, she tenses and leaps to the ridge above her head with the agility of a mountain goat. Her handler, Kevin Whitenect, is waiting there. Praising her, he scoops up her leash and they continue their trek.

Working dogs like Kali are increasingly being recruited to join elite combat units. This spring, after Navy SEALs stormed the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was hiding, reports surfaced that a dog had been part of the expert team, possibly to check for explosives or sniff out people hiding. Experts speculated that the dog was most likely a German shepherd or a Malinois - the same breed of dog now scouting the terrain at Mr. Whitenect's side.

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Tucked into the hills of Ontario's Niagara Escarpment is a facility that produces these four-legged soldiers. Baden K-9 Inc. has been quietly breeding and training highly specialized working dogs for 35 years for clients that include the U.S. military, the RCMP, Israeli special forces and private contractors in Iraq. It is the kind of work that demands secrecy, so the precise location of the facility is kept under wraps.

Mike McConnery, the company's founder, isn't happy about the spike in interest in his work since the bin Laden raid. He refuses to answer questions about whether one of his dogs might have been involved, and doesn't think any high-risk work for troops on the ground should be discussed.

"The people that [hire]us aren't going to come on camera. Quiet - that's the way of our dog. Now … we have all of these eyes on us," he says. "It went viral, this thing. We're trying to maintain security here."

So far, he has managed to maintain the security that the most specialized forces require. And with demand growing for these dogs, his son, Josh McConnery, has started a new company, Tier 1 K9, with Mr. Whitenect - a former soldier with Canadian special forces. They adapt Baden K-9 training techniques for special-ops clients.

In the field, dogs can help to uncover everything from an improvised explosive device to a lost child. They have an innate ability to track a scent - which the trainers enhance, starting when the puppies are just six weeks old. Dogs can move faster than humans, taking down a threat without using lethal force so that soldiers can operate more safely. Their hearing is far more sensitive, allowing them to detect sounds inaudible to their human handlers. If an enemy captures a dog, they do not have ways of making it talk.

Their special capabilities make these dogs well suited to work in war zones such as Afghanistan, where IEDs have become so common. Ten years ago, the U.S. military had roughly 1,400 dogs trained for service in tracking, patrol and explosives detection; today, that number has ballooned to 2,700.

"The guys that are in the field need an edge," Mike McConnery says. "These dogs are probes, they're distraction devices, they're allies, they're guards, they're security. They can do things that technology can't do. ... You can't hide from these dogs."

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The training they receive at Baden K-9 and Tier 1 K9 includes a specialized vocabulary of commands. Otherwise, in a high-intensity battlefield situation, a shout of "no," for example, could distract a dog for crucial seconds.

"Plutz," Josh McConnery says to Hunter, a mottled black-and-brown Dutch shepherd who immediately lies down on the awkward slant of the hill. The handlers speak to the dogs in English as well, and are constantly in silent contact through the way they handle the lead.

Over the course of history, dogs in warfare have heard commands in scores of tongues, from the Babylonians to the British.

The first known instance of dogs being used in combat was during the Stone Age, when mastiffs were domesticated in the Tibet region, as Michael Lemish notes in his book War Dogs.

The Egyptian military used dogs as far back as 1600 BC. And the Romans, having seen their soldiers torn apart by Teutonic invaders, began using the animals, even dressing them in spiked armour. Attila the Hun used dogs, as did Napoleon.

But in modern times, the American military lagged behind. Though dogs were used during the Civil War and First World War, there was no official military dog program until the Second World War.

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Meanwhile, the German military had been training dogs since 1870. They diligently studied the ancient history of working dogs, and put tested training techniques to use.

These techniques were passed down to Mike McConnery through a mentor named Guenther. (He does not give a last name out of concerns for his mentor's family.) Guenther taught him to feed dogs a raw diet including whole chickens, and work only with females because of their intelligence and superior bonding skills. He had trained dogs for the German military in the Second World War, a fact that caused Mr. McConnery some discomfort at first (and which many Israeli soldiers he now works with find darkly hilarious). But it also gave him the benefit of centuries of insight.

"I wish we could have all Baden dogs," says Joel Ryals, who trained with Tier 1 K9 as a military police commander at Fort Wainwright, in Alaska. Last year, he invited Josh McConnery and Mr. Whitenect to help solve problems with aggression in their dogs - which, like most canine members of the U.S. military, were bred and trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The dogs' temperaments changed almost immediately when the trainers focused on building communication and trust.

That relationship can extend beyond the battlefield too. As his next project, Mike McConnery would like his dogs to work with soldiers being pulled out of combat.

"The guys, especially if they're under a lot of stress or trauma, the dog is a release for them," he says. "There's nothing phony about a dog. ... We draw comfort from that. Because the dog is just there, no matter what happens."

Susan Krashinsky is a reporter for Report on Business.

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