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The robotic training dog named “Fitz” after Col. Michael Fitzgerald, former commanding officer of Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, is utilized by military working dog handlers on the installation. Fitz can bark, whine and be used to practice various emergency scenarios. The nearest emergency veterinarian is a considerable distance away from MCLB Albany, so the handlers are effectively the first responders when their MWDs are injured or ill. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Jonathan Wright)

Photo by Jonathan Wright

Robotic dog improves training quality for MCLB Albany MWD handlers

30 Nov 2023 | Jennifer Parks Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany

With the nearest emergency veterinarian a considerable distance away from Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, handlers are effectively the first responders when their military working dogs are injured or ill.

A robotic dog designed to train handlers for such scenarios came to MCLB Albany in recent months. And it’s a big improvement over tools used previously.

“The old training dog was manual,” said Lt. Tonette Allen, kennel master, Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee Kennel, MCLB Albany. “The new one was issued by the Department of Defense to every Marine Corps installation.”

The robotic dog is named “Fitz” after Col. Michael Fitzgerald, former commanding officer of MCLB Albany. Fitz can bark, whine and be used to practice scenarios such as a gunshot wounds, massive bleeding, a collapsed lung and shrapnel injuries. It offers the means to practice resuscitation and the use of intravenous fluids.

Its chest can rise and fall to show resuscitation was successful. The handlers have a harness in their vehicles allowing for a wounded dog to be carried out of a wooded or secluded area, another scenario practiced with Fitz.

“Once we’ve done all we can, we take the dog to an emergency vet in a real-world event,” Cpl. Trevor Giese, one of the MWD handlers for the base’s Marine Corps Police Department, said.

The MWDs at MCLB Albany live at the kennel and are utilized in patrol, explosive detection, drug detection duties, locating lost persons or fleeing suspects, supporting the U.S. Secret Service in protection of the president, vice president, former presidents and dignitaries and conducting vehicle inspections at MCLB Albany.

The German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois at the kennel stay at MCLB Albany until they retire, in the meantime becoming an important part of the workforce. This makes it all the more vital to invest in tools best preparing the humans working by their side.

“The new dog is more responsive,” said Giese. “The old training dog had to be physically pumped. The new one operates on a tablet that controls the dog’s pulse, breathing and intravenous lines.

“You can see and respond to it. There are lines running through the dog, and you can control the fluid, or blood flow.”

Various limb pieces can be swapped out to practice scenarios representing various injuries an MWD might experience in the line of duty.

“It can respond to handlers. It tells you that you are doing the right thing,” Giese said. “It can whine or stop breathing. A lot of changes can be made on the fly.”

This largely represents how a real-world emergency with a MWD would play out.

“It is more realistic training,” Allen said. “Like from paper training to real world training. We can cater it to our schedule.

“You can have the upmost prep and still be nervous, especially when it is your own dog.”

Not having such a tool to train for canine injuries means a representative from Fort Moore in Columbus needs to come to MCLB Albany to conduct training for the handlers. The kennel has one window every other month to work with for this, not ideal relative to the need.

“Fitz is the closest you can get to training with real animals,” Giese said. “We need to know what to do. We help veterinarians do their job without causing more issues in transit.”     

The canines and their handlers are continuously busy training at MCLB Albany to keep proficient in their skills. Basic skills consist of obedience, an obstacle course and gunfire training. Patrol training is composed of building searches, locating individuals and controlled aggression. Detection training includes either drugs or explosives.  

It’s a job requiring dogs to be ready and healthy to deploy at a moment’s notice. Much like their human counterparts.

“This tool allows us to maintain our mission on the base,” Allen said. “It allows handlers to be pulled off randomly for training and us to pull out any injury and surprise them.”  

Training with Fitz also includes initial treatment of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. This scenario would involve using the tablet to simulate the symptoms, including increased body temperature and altered heart rate.

“Dogs have a naturally high heart rate. We can apply that to the robot,” Giese said. “We need to treat an injury sooner rather than later, otherwise they have a longer recovery and are not able to work.”

The mission of MCPD is to protect life and property at MCLB Albany. Taking a handler and dog out of commission to go to the vet center in Columbus negatively impacts that function.

“We can lose a full day going back and forth,” Allen said.

And that’s in a minor incident.

“We take shifts at Fort Moore in more serious situations,” Giese said. “It was for a week in one case.”  

Prevention of death is not guaranteed with more advanced training tools. But these tools do guarantee a greater chance of survival.

“With little to no training, we can’t respond in a way suitable to the dog,” Giese said. “We need to make sure the dog is able to make it to a vet in time.” 

Dogs are selected as MWDs at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas based on their drive and willingness to work. They are trained for 24 weeks and must pass all the basic, patrol and detector skills before going to an installation. Handlers must pass an interview board, and once selected, they complete an 11-week basic handler course at JBSA-Lackland. 

But injuries do still occur even after these standards are met.

“The dogs will cut themselves, and there will be a large amount of blood,” Giese said. “This training robot helps us get to the vet in time and identify changes in behavior. The vet is not always there with you, so these are invaluable skills.”

Sgt. James Medders, K9 trainer for the MCPD at MCLB Albany, expressed a similar frame of mind.

“We need to be geared for emergency response,” Medders said. “This tool does not prevent injury, but it helps with the training needed to stabilize the dog.

“The more we practice it the more proficient we will be at it, like everything else. Over time it becomes second nature.”

Learning these skills before the real thing helps the handler figure out what to do on the go. There’s a bond between handler and MWD further reflecting the need for emergency response to be second nature.

“Once dogs are introduced into K9 training, there may not be another handler,” Allen said. “This tool gives the sole handler confidence and better response in assisting their partner.”

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