DAVID GREENE, Host:
Unidentified Man: Heel! Heel!
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
GRAHAM SMITH: The dog handlers here at Camp Leatherneck are doing last-minute training, like the rest of the Marines.
ROBERT LEDDY: That's Lode.
SMITH: Only this training starts out like any ordinary trip to walk the dog.
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.
LEDDY: And then when he's all done, he usually comes up to me and tells me he's ready.
SMITH: The lance corporal holds up three foot-long rubber batons called bumpers.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
BOB BREEDEN: 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.
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)
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?
LEDDY: He's two.
SMITH: Never been deployed before, huh?
LEDDY: No, this is his first deployment.
SMITH: His first deployment, like many of the young men in the 2/8.
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: Graham Smith, NPR News at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.