Just before dark on a hot summer’s eve, “R”, an officer in the “Oketz” (“Sting”) Canine Unit shouts: “Everyone back! This is one mean hound and you definitely don’t want him to mistake you for a target.”
The dog appears ready for action, all its senses primed. It catches the whiff of a soldier stationed behind a cement wall. The trooper, acting as a terrorist, is clad from head to toe in inflatable protective gear called a “bite suit.”
The dog’s eyes are totally focused and ears tensely perked as its tail jerks nervously. The handler tightens his hold on the leash and waits for the command. ”Target ready,” announces “R.”
The soldier-terrorist sneaks a look from behind the wall and disappears, the dog lets out a sharp bark, strains at the leash and the trainer lets go. In seconds, it leaps at the “terrorist.” The sound of a heavy thud can be heard as the dog’s jaw locks on to the trooper’s raised arm. Mission accomplished. The now neutralized “terrorist,” lies motionless, as the trainer prepares to deal with the “enemy.”
”Recognizing the benefits of attack dogs, the past decade has seen a rise in their use. Today, the unit’s members play an integral part in many operations carried out by the IDF’s most elite combat units,” Lieutenant Colonel “C”, Commander of Oketz spoke to IsraelDefense in a recent interview: “If the Sayeret Matkal or naval commandos are tasked with a job, you’ll generally find an Oketz dog with its handler accompanying them. Our fighters lead the commandos and are trained to respond to any situation, no matter how complex.”
In the past, attack dogs were an operational secret, even though the IDF had been using them in a limited role for decades. The first public acknowledgment of their service came in 1980, during a hostage rescue at Kibbutz Misgav Am on the Lebanese border.
Established in the 1990s, each of the unit’s three companies is organized according to the dogs’ designated missions: to neutralize terrorists in combat situations; explosives detection; and search and rescue.
”The search and rescue dogs are used mainly in disasters like the earthquakes in Turkey and Haiti and the US Embassy bombing in Kenya,” Lieutenant Colonel “C” explains.
”Oketz’s work also includes rescue missions during military operations, as in the case of a helicopter crash or an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) that has been detonated by an IED. We train the dogs not to touch the trapped people—just to find them. However, the Oketz dogs’ main abilities are locating explosives, pursuit and attack.
“Before a force enters an area, a dog is sent in. We use the dogs to locate IEDs when clearing military roads, scanning structures for booby-traps, and wherever explosives are suspected. There’s also a unit of dogs permanently stationed at checkpoints in the West Bank, where the animals are used to sniff out weapons in passing vehicles.”
Oketz is considered one of the best canine units in the world; equivalent units in other armies routinely visit Israel to train with it. “What’s unique about Oketz is the way we train the dogs and their handlers, use them in operational assignments, learn from our experiences, and draw up a doctrine that’s circulated to all the units. All of the professional aspects of dog handling, and the accumulated knowledge and experience are concentrated in one place.
“Training is carried out within the unit from start to finish, and is adapted to meet prevailing field conditions. In other armies, elite companies have their own canine units and the dogs are supposed to be versed in the entire range of missions and contingencies. Without specialization in a particular field, performance is bound to be mediocre.”
Discipline and “doggedness”
The unit’s dogs are mainly German, Belgian and Dutch Shepherds—extremely disciplined animals, relentless and endowed with powerful physical attributes.
Some of the dogs are born in Israel, while others are imported. After a lengthy basic training period, each dog is assigned a specialty: explosives detection dogs must be extremely disciplined and quiet; search and rescue canines need a highly developed sense of smell; and attack dogs require strength and fearlessness.
”An attack dog is a dominant animal with very powerful instincts,” states “Y”, one of the unit’s officers. “It can’t be too intelligent, and its main trait is courage. Its job is not to kill, but to neutralize the enemy and inflict pain. The soldier steps in only after the enemy has been subdued.”
”The initial training develops the dogs’ instincts, discipline and aggressiveness so they won’t balk in fear,” IsraelDefense learned from Yaniv Stern, a certified dog trainer. “Only the best are selected at this stage. A dog that’s too apathetic, too sensitive to food or tends to chase cats, doesn’t reach the unit. It must be brave and have exceptional attributes. Its instincts are developed through biting games with rags or other objects, playing ball and lots of walks.”
After the dogs make it to the unit (at one and a half-years old) the mutual learning stage begins. The training regimen continues with a handler who has exclusive responsibility for their dog.
The Oketz training program runs for a year and four months and is divided into two stages: four months of basic infantry training, plus two months of advanced infantry training. Those who make it through are sent to the unit for another four months of instruction and exercises in navigation, counterterror, and rough terrain combat. Following this, the second phase begins in which the troopers are divided into companies and learn how to work with their dogs.
”Once the dogs are transferred to the unit’s base, the pace of training intensifies,” says Stern. “Instead of rags, they’re taught to bite the sleeve of a protective suit. They are conditioned to bite only what they’re told to. These dogs have a highly developed hunting reflex. When a human is on the run, their instinct compels them to give chase and latch on to the fleeing suspect. The trainer’s goal is to teach the dog to bite only the object in front of it. Usually though, attack dogs serve solely as advanced scouts for the operating forces.”
”Our dogs receive five-star treatment,” says “Y”. “They’re checked once a week by a vet, receive the best food money can buy, and their kennels are spacious and comfortable. From a dog’s point of view, even high-risk operational activity is a kind of game for their instincts to come into play.”
Unfortunately, the operations don’t always end on a happy note.
A canine cemetery is located on the Oketz base for dogs killed in action. A monument in the center of the graveyard is a testament to the relationship between the soldiers and their canine partners. “Every so often, we hold a memorial ceremony for dogs that have fallen in the line of duty. Despite the sorrow, an absolute separation exists between humans and the dogs, and each soldier is aware of this. The dogs’ purpose is to benefit the human, not vice versa. We arrange a small memorial service, read a short passage—something simple and symbolic—and then the soldier who lost his dog receives a new four-legged team member.”