The Stress of Competition
Simeon Dunker spent 10 ½ years in the US Army as a Military Policeman. He has spent over 10 years working and training Police K9s and Handlers. He has completed two tours in Iraq and was medically retired in 2014. After years of training and handling working dogs with various departments and agencies all over the country, Simeon wanted to expand his knowledge and decided to further his studies in the biological aspect of the K9 to help with the psychology of training. Simeon is currently attending CFCC for Veterinary Medical Technology, and still volunteers his time and experience wherever requested.
The unpredictability of the events and the performance my dog (Maxi, a German Shepard) was just the beginning of the mess of what was going on in my mind when I arrived at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri. The stress was high with all of the competitors. I was unsure of why I pushed so hard to get myself to this War Dog Competition. This competition made me even more nervous because if I performed badly, it could affect my reputation as a dog handler for the rest of my career. As I looked around the room, I could see many of the soldiers that were in charge of various sections of the Military Working Dog Program and high ranking officials that were present to observe and judge the performance of all the teams. We all knew this wasn’t a competition just for the handlers but for the team as a whole. You could perform flawlessly, but if your dog was having a bad day, you could fail.
I had been a K9 handler for a little over six months at Fort Rucker, Alabama when this opportunity presented itself. One of the other trainers in the kennels showed me the e-mail advertising the upcoming competition and told me “I would love to go, but I don’t think I will be ready in enough time.” After hearing one of my more experienced peers tell me this, it immediately made me want to compete. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. I walked into the Kennel Master’s office, a small 5’ X 6’ room, littered with K9 training gear, awards, a desk and computer. The Kennel Master was the person that ran the day to day operations, made all the major decisions, and decided who receives what dog and what teams travel for any missions. I boldly asked if I could go and compete. He immediately looked up from his desk and told me, “no.” Granted, I was upset about his decision. Something told me I should not give up. Even though I was told I could not compete, I could not let it go. I felt the need to compete, to prove something to myself. After years of work to get the career of my dreams, it meant the world to prove to myself this is where I belonged, and that I didn’t waste the Army’s time or money. I spent the next month working and training as hard as I could, even on my off days when I could have been at home or out doing something enjoyable. Training during the summer in ninety-degree heat with one hundred percent humidity is not very pleasant, for the dog or the handler. I had to prove my point to my Kennel Master. I needed to show him that I deserved to go to the competition. Finally, I was pulled into his office and he asked, “Why do you want to compete so badly? Give me one good reason as to why I should send you?” This was something that had been stewing in my head for weeks before this point. I decided to go for it; “Who better to learn from? The best the Army has to offer will be there,” I replied. He looked at me, pondering what I had just said to him. After what seemed like forever he finally responded, “Fine, you can compete.” I was at a loss for words. I quickly dismissed myself from his office and walked outside very calmly. As soon as I got to my car, I jumped into the air and erupted with a loud “YES!!”
Day one began. Rules of the competition were handed out. There were over 60 teams packed into a large hall, the type of room where you would picture a conference being held. The packet that was handed to the selected handlers was three pages long, littered with all of the rules of the competition in small print. I looked around the room and started noticing people I had only heard stories about from my peers. These were people that worked together, deployed together, and been friends most of their careers. Then, the social “meet and greet” began, and I heard everyone talk about how this competition should compare to the others they had competed in. Reality started to set in at this point. I got up from my chair and walked outside. Deciding to go outside was probably the best decision, because I felt my heart pounding through my chest and I was starting to get a little nauseous.
As I stood outside the building alone, I heard a familiar voice ask, “Let me guess, nerves are kicking in. Am I right?” I turned and saw one of my former instructors from K9 School. “A little,” I replied. We got into a conversation on some of the events that had happened during school and how I pulled myself through them. I forgot about some of the events from school that we were discussing, but the memories immediately started coming back to me. I slowly started to feel better about being at the competition. The last thing he said to me before walking back into the building was, “It’s good to be nervous because that shows you care. Just don’t be scared because that is when you will make mistakes.”Those words of advice were probably some of the best I had ever been given. In this profession, being nervous will help you notice more around you, things that are out of place that many untrained people don’t notice on a daily basis. It could be something as simple as a container of coffee, but there is no coffee pot anywhere around. This could be a sign of either an explosive device or a drug stash. Situational awareness/alertness is a tool that helps K9 teams succeed. I returned to the gathering and started talking to some of the other competing handlers. Things were starting to become fun, at least for day one. Day two began the actual competition. Detection was the first event. Multiple scenarios had already been assigned for each of the different disciplines (drugs or explosives). These scenarios were run in multiple buildings, warehouses, barracks, and open fields. As a team, we were trying to locate as many training aids as we could in the shortest time frame. Accuracy and speed were the main focus for the next two days of the competition.
On the final day, which was the hardest, we were required to complete an obstacle course with our K9 partners. Other than great physical conditioning of the team, there really was no way to prepare myself for what was about to happen.
I was laying on my back completely exhausted, covered in sweat and mud, crawling under barbed wire with my dog when it hit me. I was almost to the finish point. I yelled in a booming voice, “I CAN DO THIS!” Yelling this startled Maxi a bit, and caused one of the judges to laugh a little, but I immediately felt a surge of energy come out of nowhere. We started with climbing over three, two foot walls, but the catch was you had to lift the dog over each of the walls before you could negotiate it. Having a 107 lb partner made for a difficult start. From there, we ran a few yards to the monkey bars. These had to be negotiated while your dog was clipped to your waist. If he/she decided to go the opposite way you were going, then you would be pulled off the bars. There were many other challenging obstacles that were designed to be negotiated by the handler and the dog. If any of them were not completed or were bypassed, the team was penalized points and time assessed at the end of the course. After the course was completed, we were all checked out by medics (which were on stand-by throughout the course). I had partially dislocated my knee during the course. So when I made it to the finish point, I was instructed to sit on the picnic table to have the medics help me bandage up my knee while waiting on the last team to complete the course.
While sitting on the picnic table, bandaging my knee, one of my fellow competitors hit me on the shoulder and said “Dude! That’s you! You took second place!” I looked up from the table in pure disbelief of what I had just heard, and realized in fact, they actually were calling my name for a trophy. Completely shocked, and exhausted, I got up and limped over to the award presenters to accept my trophy. I don’t know whether it was the pain or the sheer excitement, but I couldn’t stop shaking. While I made my way down the line of everyone who was there to give congratulations and handshakes, in my peripheral vision, I noticed someone new had stepped at the end of the line. It was my Kennel Master. He shook my hand, and all he said to me was, “I knew you could do it, I just wanted you to realize it too.” It took every ounce of my remaining strength to keep from breaking down right there. I had done it. Not only had I competed in the competition, but my partner Maxi and I earned second place in narcotics detection. I returned to Fort Rucker with my head held high and all of my fears laid to rest. I had proved to myself and my peers this was my calling, the career of my dreams, and I had no more reason to doubt I belonged here. After some long-deserved R&R (rest and relaxation), I began to train for the next competition.
By Simeone Dunker, United States Army