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Now to Afghanistan, where for U.S. troops, there's no greater threat to life and limb than roadside bombs. Many bombs can be found with metal detectors. But increasingly, insurgents are using massive homemade explosives with little metal. They're just buried plastic jugs packed with a deadly mix of fertilizer and fuel.

Now bomb-sniffing dogs are being trained and used by the Marines to detect this kind of roadside bomb.

As thousands of U.S. troops move in Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, NPR's Graham Smith reports on the deployment of man's best friend.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Unidentified Man: Heel! Heel!

(Soundbite of dog barking)

GRAHAM SMITH: The dog handlers here at Camp Leatherneck are doing last-minute training, like the rest of the Marines.

Lance Corporeal ROBERT LEDDY (Dog Handler, U.S. Marine Corps, Camp Leatherneck): That's Lode.

SMITH: Only this training starts out like any ordinary trip to walk the dog.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: He's just - usually, we let them air them out before we start to work them, so they don't go to the bathroom while we're running them and stuff.

SMITH: Lode is a black Lab. His tall, thin handler is Lance Corporal Robert Leddy.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: And then when he's all done, he usually comes up to me and tells me he's ready.

SMITH: Lode and his handler are one of 13 bomb-detecting teams attached to the Marines' 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a detachment we're following this year. Their task is to help clear the roads of the deadly bombs that are taking such a toll on U.S. troops.

The lance corporal holds up three foot-long rubber batons called bumpers.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: We're going to run what we call a bumper drill. These are bumpers. Heel. You tell him to stay as you're going to be throwing the bumpers out.

SMITH: Lode can play an impressive game of fetch, following whistles and arm signals like a border collie, going to exactly the bumper Leddy directs him to while ignoring the others.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: You want to send them - you can either send them in a straight line, which is point to point. You tell them, you know, our command word is B-A-C-K. And I can't say it now, or he'll run. Or you tell him to hunt it up, and he'll go and he'll search for whatever we're looking for, which would be the explosives or anything else.

SMITH: This drill trains the dog to be able to approach a suspicious pile of gravel or a box near the road that could contain a bomb.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: Now he's got it all lined up. I'm going to try and send him to the furthest one right, which he's got locked on. So, back.

SMITH: Lode takes off.

Now working a black Lab out on this dust-choked desert may seem cruel. Labs are water dogs. Hot sun on black fur can't be much fun. But the Marines say Labs are focused and need to drink less often than many breeds.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: He usually makes a straight line for it and brings it back. Good boy. Here, sit, sit.

SMITH: Lance Corporal Leddy says Lode is more than an asset. He's a companion.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: He can sense when an explosion goes off somewhere, like, if they're doing, like, a range or something. If I jump, usually he's, you know, right next to me or he'll come near me. He's usually like, you know, he's my best friend right now.

SMITH: But that bond - essential to a good team - can also be a problem, says the top enlisted man in the battalion, Sergeant Bob Breeden.

Sergeant Major BOB BREEDEN (U.S. Marine Corps, Camp Leatherneck): It's tough. It's tough because one of our biggest obstacles is having a Marine not become so attached to him, because it's not his.

SMITH: And like any tool in the arsenal, the dogs are meant to be used.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: When we're out on the battlefield, you know, we've got a job. We've got a suspected IED. The dogs are deployed. You know, you've got to send that dog in danger's way, but that dog is protecting everybody else. Sit. Sit. Back.

(Soundbite of whistle)

SMITH: Having run Lode through the drill, the young Marine pets his black Lab and gets a big, wet dog kiss in return.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: I owned a few dogs, but nothing like this. I mean, these dogs are amazing. Sit. Sit. Good boy.

SMITH: How old is he?

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: He's two.

SMITH: Never been deployed before, huh?

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: No, this is his first deployment.

SMITH: His first deployment, like many of the young men in the 2/8.

Lance Cpl. LEDDY: You know, it's going to be sad when I let him go at the end of seven months. We've got to give them back, unfortunately. I'd like to keep him, but, you know, he has got to work, just like me. He's got a contract he's got to fill.

SMITH: Lance Corporal Leddy and his dog Lode are ready to head out onto the booby-trapped roads of Helmand province, searching for bombs and protecting the rest of their battalion.

Graham Smith, NPR News at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.

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