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Bomb sniffing dogs a big hit at NTC for 4th Strykers

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FORT IRWIN, Calif. - Her tail wagging uncontrollably as passersby brush their hands across her fur, Coba, a 3-year-old chocolate lab, often stands for a lot of things.

She's the dog troops leave at home before deploying; the one they grew up with. She's a fond memory, a beacon of happiness - temporarily, if nothing else - in a place far from home.

"I just have to ask. Can I pet her?" a Soldier asked Coba's trainer, who brought Coba to the National Training Center, where Soldiers with the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division are making final preparations for a fall deployment to Afghanistan, to demonstrate her capabilities as a bomb-sniffing dog.

"I miss my dog," the Soldier said, kneeling down to stroke Coba's coat of thick, brown fur, his gentler side clearly getting the best of him.

And the other Soldiers who stood gathered in the section of tent shelter where Coba lay on the floor panting from the desert heat all agreed - they missed theirs, too.

Coba serves as a tactical explosives detector dog, or TEDD - a canine trained under a two-year-old program whose job it is to sniff out bombs in combat zones. She's man's best friend and also one of his best weapons on today's battlefield.

Her handler, David Sheffer, who works as a trainer for Vohne Liche Kennels in Denver, Ind., where Coba and the other TEDDs learn their trade, brought her to a mock forward operating base on NTC June 14 so Soldiers, civilians and Afghan role players could see her talents.

Fourth Brigade will soon select 25 Soldiers from across its ranks and from different career fields to train at Vohne Liche before the brigade's fall deployment to Afghanistan. Once overseas, their sole jobs will be to care for and escort their issued dogs to regions in need of explosives detection capabilities - to interpret the behaviors of their furry friends and to trust in them.

To find the right Soldiers for the demanding two-month course, Sheffer spent June 5 to 15 travelling to various companies and platoons in the brigade spread out across NTC.

"We're trying to show and demonstrate the capabilities of these dogs to build some excitement with the Soldiers that are out here to get them exposed to this program and to get the commanders used to working the dogs in this environment," said Sheffer, a San Antonio native.

"It is definitely a force enhancer and a force multiplier."

Army observers monitoring training for the Soldiers of 4th Brigade, who run, oversee and assess the performance of units at NTC, hid small paper sacks of explosive residue inside the tent for Coba to locate.

A small audience of Soldiers watched closely as Coba sought out the scents with ease, stopping briefly to lick the face of a sergeant first class sitting in the room.

Sheffer flicked the fingers of one hand as if to be spritzing water across the floor as he used the other to hold Coba's leash with absolute grace, allowing her to lead him around the confined area.

"Woo, good girl!" he cheered, praising her success.

Then, he took her outside to show her off to an assembly of Soldiers, Afghan role players portraying Afghan army soldiers and government civilians.

For Sheffer, who spent 14 of his 22 years as an Air Force military policeman working with dogs, showcasing the abilities of four-legged secret weapons like Coba is an important mission.

But it tends to be the more dog-like things that ultimately draw troops in.

"Obviously, her ideal mission is to go out and find explosives, but if it will help the Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine get through, then I'll call her a therapy dog also," said Sheffer as Coba relaxed on the tent floor, a tennis ball laid before her paws next to a pool of water she lapped from a Dixie cup moments before.

"Most of them have pets at home that they miss - and it just brings them closer to their families and pets back home," he said. "Everywhere we go, people stop and say, ‘oh, I miss my dog. It's so great to see your dog out here.' "

Sheffer travels to installations and training centers across the country seeking out the right Soldiers to lead the uniquely trained dogs overseas. This is the second appearance the TEDDs have made at NTC.

But wherever Sheffer goes, the reactions are the same, and the softer side of troops shows through.

"Every time we went out to a platoon or company, the Soldiers wanted to come over and pet the animals," he said.

"What it does is lift the Soldiers' spirit," said Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Pippin, the training observer who followed Sheffer and his dog around for their visit to the training center. "They see something that reminds them of home - that first pet they might have had."

And to Sheffer, that can be a game changer for not only motivation but job performance.

"It's just a little piece of home," he said. "And the happier you are, the better you're going to function.

"That's just the psychology of any job - if you're out there and something made you happy, it's just going to boost your morale and make you want to go out and perform."

Pippin, a 21-year Army military policeman who oversaw the deployment of explosives detection dogs to various operating bases across Afghanistan on his most recent deployment, has witnessed that first hand.

"I've had Soldiers say, ‘hey, sergeant, can I play with your dog?' And then they're like, ‘hey, sergeant, I'm ready, let's go!' " he said.

"For some strange reason, petting a dog - whatever anger's built up goes right away," he added. "It's a great stress reliever to play with the dog."

It's a proven fact, Pippin said, that the dogs work as successful explosives detection devices.

But this device, trying to cool off in middle of the Mojave Desert, is different. It will lick you; it will love you; it will take you back to a place you miss.

And almost always, it will bring out the best in you.

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