Trident K9 Warriors: My Tale From the Training Ground to the Battlefield with Elite Navy SEAL Canines

Trident K9 Warriors: My Tale From the Training Ground to the Battlefield with Elite Navy SEAL Canines

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by Mike Ritland, Gary Brozek, Jeff Gurner

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As a Navy SEAL during a combat deployment in Iraq, Mike Ritland saw a military working dog in action and instantly knew he'd found his true calling. Ritland started his own company training and supplying dogs for the SEAL teams, U.S. Government, and Department of Defense. He knew that fewer than 1 percent of all working dogs had what it takes to contribute to the

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As a Navy SEAL during a combat deployment in Iraq, Mike Ritland saw a military working dog in action and instantly knew he'd found his true calling. Ritland started his own company training and supplying dogs for the SEAL teams, U.S. Government, and Department of Defense. He knew that fewer than 1 percent of all working dogs had what it takes to contribute to the success of our nation's elite combat units, and began searching the globe for animals who fit this specific profile. These specialized canines had to pass rigorous selection tests before their serious training could begin.

The results were a revelation: highly trained working dogs capable of handling both detection and apprehension work in the most extreme environments and the tensest of battlefield conditions. Though fiercely aggressive and athletic, these dogs develop a close bond with the handlers they work side by side with and the other team members. Truly integrating themselves into their units, these K9 warriors are much like their human counterparts—unwavering in their devotion to duty, strong enough and tough enough to take it to the enemy through pain, injury, or fear.

For the first time ever, Trident K9 Warriors gives listeners an inside look at these elite canines—who they are, how they are trained, and the extreme missions they undertake saving countless lives, asking for little in the way of reward. From detecting explosives to eliminating the bad guys, these powerful dogs are also some of the smartest and most highly skilled working animals on the planet.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“After a stellar career in the Teams, Mike Ritland has gone on to train working K9's for some of the most elite units in the U.S. Special Operations community. These dogs are integrated into Special Operations at all levels of mission planning. They HALO parachute from high altitude, chase enemy squirters, and detect explosive booby traps, to name just a few tasks. If you want to learn about these amazing animals, the sacrifices they've made, and their effectiveness in combat, then read Navy SEAL K9 Warriors.” —Brandon Webb, Former Navy SEAL, New York Times bestselling author of The Red Circle, and Editor-in-Chief

Watching military dogs in action in Iraq is what convinced Navy SEAL Michael Ritland that he wanted to train combat canines after he himself left the service. Since his muster out, he has fulfilled that resolution, preparing dogs for combat and security duty for the U.S. Defense Department and government. His Trident K9 Warriors spotlights the heroic work done by these four-legged heroes; but it also focuses on the rigorous training and the close relationships they build with their trainers and handlers.

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Trident K9 Warriors

My Tales From The Training Ground To The Battlefield With Elite Navy Seal Canines

By Mike Ritland, Gary Brozek

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Mike Ritland and Gary Brozek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02497-8


The dog lay in the shade of a stunted palm tree, his head up and his ears at attention. He was scanning the desert scrubland, vigilant, the lines of muscle beneath the heavy fur of his flanks taut and ready. Even from behind him, I could see his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, flopping like a pink fish.

"Duco," the man beside me said.

The Malinois, a Belgian herding dog, turned to look at us, his expression keenly alert and his dark eyes intent.


The dog sprang to his feet and made his way across the dusty terrain that passed for a yard in the desert communities well east of San Diego. Under other circumstances, I might have tensed up at the sight of this seventy-five-pound package of fierce determination approaching. As Duco neared, I could see recognition dawning; a nearly imperceptible softening of the muscles around his eyes let me know that he knew who I was.

He also knew enough not to approach me first, though the two of us had spent the first few months of his life in the United States together. As commanded, he came up to Seth, formerly his SEAL Team handler and now in his retirement Duco's caregiver, and sat alongside the man he'd served with on dozens of missions for the past six years. Duco sat, still very much at attention, until Seth told him it was okay.

Duco looked at me, and I noticed that the fur around his muzzle and eyes had lightened a bit and was no longer the deep ebony that had glowed like a spit-polished dress boot. What hadn't changed was the slight deflection in one line of the isosceles triangle of his large ears. Some scuffle as a pup in his kennel outside of Tilburg, in the Netherlands, had left him with an identifying mark. In my mind it wasn't a flaw, an imperfection, but a mark of distinction. I gave his head a few rubs with the flat of my hand and then ran it down his shoulder and along his rib cage. He was still in fine fighting trim, but I noticed that he relaxed out of his posture a bit and leaned into me. I smiled at this sign of affection and appreciation for the attention I was giving him.

"He's doing good," I said to Seth.

"Always. He's a good ol' boy." Seth pushed his sunglasses up and squinted into the distance. "He likes it here. Looks a little like the sandbox, but there's a lot less action. I think we both miss it — but don't at all."

Seth had spent more than a dozen years as a West Coast SEAL Team member, the last of it as a handler working with Duco. Now they both spent their time together on a small ranch property outside of Ranchita, his property bordering on, fittingly enough, Hellhole Palms and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Having also served my time as a SEAL Team member and seen my share of action, I knew just exactly what Seth meant.

Now that I was working as a private contractor providing military working dogs (MWDs) to the navy and training them and their handlers, I was slightly removed from all that. Seth and Duco had ceased being active-duty military only three months earlier, and both would have chafed at the idea that they were "retired" and at all the associations we have of folks living in planned communities and riding around in golf carts or some such. Still, the transition for both man and dog isn't an easy one, and having trained SEAL Team members and their canine counterparts, I felt a deep empathy for both sides of the partnership. I can't really say that it was a formal part of my job or that it was written into my contract with the government that I pay these visits to my former trainees. It was a privilege and an honor, and more than that, a great pleasure to see them still together.

In most ways, Duco was still fitter and more capable than 99.9 percent of the dogs in this country, but that wasn't good enough for the kind of demands that he had to meet downrange in places like Afghanistan. Not only was the work so demanding but also the stakes were so high that anything less than the absolute best fell short of the requirement. It wasn't a question of heart. Duco still had the drive and determination, but the inevitable toll from age and years of stress was starting to creep in.

I knelt down alongside Duco and draped my arm around him. "Braafy," I said. It always amazed me that something as simple as that short statement of approval meant so much to a dog, that over the years teams like Seth and Duco had developed such a bond of trust that the dog would willingly and gladly place himself in positions of peril.

A few minutes later, Seth and I sat down on the deck he'd recently built. Duco resumed his perimeter position in the shade. Seth told me a little bit about the enclosure he had built, split rail and wire, and he nodded out past the line of postholes he'd dug, the piles of dirt like overturned funnels flanking them.

"I'm not sure if I'm keeping the coyotes from getting in or Duco from getting out. I'm likely doing those varmints a favor either way. Duco would give them more than they bargained for, no doubt." Seth's voice still possessed a mild twang, revealing his Smoky Mountain roots.

"Damn straight he would."

"They wouldn't know what hit them."

Inevitably the talk turned to war stories. Seth shared with me an incident that forged the bond that existed between him and his dog.

"That time you took us out on that training exercise, doing the house-to-house maneuvers" — Seth shook his head and smiled — "he got hold of that target, and I thought I was going to have to choke him out to get him to release."

"They do like to bite," I said flatly, underscoring my understatement, "and Duco does more than most."

"I remember looking him in the eye, neither of us willing to give in, and then it dawned on that dog that he was the one who was going to give in, on account of me, and not because he wanted to. Then I knew I had him."

Seth went on to say that he believed that was the moment when he and Duco came to a better understanding. "I think of it this way: my daddy raised me to fear and respect him, and I did. But with what you helped us with, Duco obeyed because he got the idea that was the right thing to do and not 'cause I was going to beat his ass. Never in my life would I have thought a dog could communicate so much with a look and his posture."

"It doesn't always happen, but when it does, it almost defies explanation," I said.

"Hard work and love," Seth added, summing it up pretty nicely, I thought.

"Hey, Bud." Duco turned toward Seth, his eyes and ears alert. Seth smiled. "Good boy."

No matter that the navy had invested more than fifty thousand dollars in the acquisition, training, and care of Duco before Seth spent that year in our program pre-deployment, Duco was still "his." That was as it should be; unfortunately, it isn't always. I've trained hundreds of dogs for a variety of purposes, and it's not always easy to let them go to another home, especially a quality dog like Duco. Training dogs to be of service to us is my job, and it's also my passion. Seeing how a pair like Seth and Duco continue to operate does my heart good.

"I'd hate to think what would have happened if he wasn't with us," Seth said, echoing my thoughts exactly. "Instead, here we are."

There wasn't much I could say, so I didn't.

Seth set his beer down and reached into a wooden planter on the picnic table. He drew his lips back and let out a soft whistle. Duco stood, assumed the position, his ears tilting forward and pointing heavenward, his expression intent. Seth reared back and fired the tennis ball over the enclosure's fence and into the post-holed lot beyond. I watched as the ball arced and bounced wildly, and then I followed Seth's gaze from the ball's landing zone to the dog, no longer obscured in shadow but in the warm glow of the setting sun.

"Okay," Seth said at last.

Like a bow pulled tight and finally released, Duco shot out across the lot, kicking up dust. At the fence he didn't hesitate but easily bounded over the top rail, looking like a dressage champion horse at some grand prix. Duco had overcome a bunch of obstacles to become a distinguished member of our most elite Special Operations Forces (SOF), and it was good to see that he still surmounted them. I had to laugh as, in his eagerness, he stooped to clamp down on the ball and, his front legs splayed and his rear ones still churning, he nearly went, as my granddad might have said, "ass over teakettle."

His prize captured, Duco trotted back, munching on the ball, his mouth twisted into a kind of silly, giddy grin. He hopped the fence again and came onto the deck to show us what he'd managed to capture. He sat at Seth's feet, then lowered himself into a relaxed, paws-crossed lie-down, still working the tennis ball.

Seth looked at me half-embarrassed, half-pleased. "That's my one concession to his retirement."

I nodded, knowing that in training Duco would have been told to drop the ball fairly quickly at his handler's feet. Those extra moments of reward, gnawing on that bit of felt and rubber, weren't all that he was getting. Seth stroked Duco's head, working his fingers around the backs of his ears as Duco cocked his head in pleasure.

Seth said, "Los," and Duco released the ball.

Seth picked it up and offered it to me. I looked at the spit-frothed ball, it's optic yellow cover frosted in white, and declined.

Laughing, I said to Seth as he stood to throw another one for Duco, "Wilson. U.S. Open hard court. You've got expensive taste."

Settling back into his seat after letting Duco go bounding off to complete his appointed rounds, Seth sipped his beer and said, grinning with satisfaction, "Nothing but the best for my boy. He deserves it."

I couldn't agree more.

My trip to visit Duco and his handler wasn't just a social call. After having served in the U.S. Navy for almost thirteen years, eleven of which I spent as a SEAL Team member, since 2009 I've been training and providing working dogs for the military, various government agencies, and private individuals. Going to see Duco was a part of another responsibility that I take very seriously. I founded a nonprofit organization to make certain that retired military working dogs are able to live out the remainder of their lives in positive and beneficial environments. Though I knew that Duco was well cared for, I still wanted to check in on him, just like I frequently make contact with fellow members of SEAL Team 3, and members of other SEAL Teams I've come to know in my new role. Whether you're a canine or a human, having been a SEAL Team member means you're a brother, and we are all our brothers' keepers for life.

By the time you finish reading this book, I hope you'll come to understand that there's not an ounce of disrespect intended when I make the comparison between what military working dogs in the SEAL Teams have contributed and what their human counterparts have done. Though the canines don't have as long a history as the humans — the SEAL Teams first utilized their own dogs a few years after 9/11 — dogs and SEALs have occasionally worked side by side for decades. It wasn't until 2004 that the SEALs began to use dogs specially trained to meet the specific needs of the teams in-house. I'm proud to have been associated with the later development of dogs for use with the SEAL Teams specifically and with the Special Operations Forces community generally. As you'll learn in the pages that follow, the training and implementation of dogs in combat has evolved over the years in the U.S. military. I'm especially proud of how the latest in training methodology has benefited both man and dog, made for more humane treatment of our animal brothers, and that the dogs operate in the field with tremendous courage and tenacity. These dogs have saved countless lives and prevented innumerable horrific injuries. As a nation, we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. By telling the story of some of these dogs, I hope to increase awareness of the vital role that military working dogs play, especially at a time of transition within our military.

Like most people, I knew that the military utilized dogs. Growing up, I'd seen enough war movies and viewed enough scenes of dogs held tightly leashed by handlers who were mostly members of the military police. While my knowledge of the role that dogs played in war evolved somewhat over the years, it didn't change much until I actually saw them in use in Iraq. There, I experienced one of those "lightbulb" moments, when I knew that the course of my life was going to see two paths joined together.

In April of 2003, a sixteen-member SEAL Team I was a part of was deployed to Iraq. This was the very early stage of the ground war, and we were tagging along with the First Marine Division. After a brief stay in Baghdad, we were tasked with taking the key city of Tikrit. Our convoy, consisting of twenty-five thousand U.S. Marines and my platoon, stretched out some thirty miles along the 119-mile route. Eventually we piggybacked with the Second Battalion and approached the city from the east, while other battalions (Light Armored Reconnaissance and Light Armored Vehicle) approached from the other cardinal directions. We spearheaded the approach, entering through a wealthy portion of the city near Saddam Hussein's palace. This was one of those hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-standing-up kinds of moments. The streets were deserted, and there was no sign of activity anywhere, but you knew that people were around despite the dead silence and the empty streets.

I experienced a similar kind of sensation, this time for a better reason, when we met limited resistance and took the palace down. The building was so massive, it took us more than an hour to clear all the rooms. We were there for four days and spent part of it on the roof of the palace, at the highest point in the city, overlooking the Tigris River. Beyond that lay the airfield where hundreds of pounds of cached weapons and munitions had been destroyed by the air force bombers with Joint Direct Attack Munitions (J-DAMs) and other smart bombs. As we sat on the roof, we watched sympathetic detonations, and at night it was like watching solar flares. Only this went on all day and all night, the explosive sounds and sights becoming the sound track to a once calm city now roiled by our munitions.

One night that stillness was broken by the sound of explosions close in — about 350 yards from our position. I was doing my four-hour block — between 0200 and 0600 — when I saw three little flashes of light off in the distance and then a few seconds later those big explosions. The three flashes and then the explosions continued to our south, advancing to within 100 yards of the palace. As I was getting on the radio, I saw an army counter-artillery unit fire up across the Tigris, that movement accompanied by the sound of electric transformers, a mechanical whizz-bang electronic sound, followed by the sound of heavy weapons fire. In a matter of seconds those blips of lights we'd seen erupted in a massive flash, and whoever it was were wiped off the map. I sat there wondering what might have been. If those Iraqis had gotten their rounds off directed at us, who knows?

Those who-knows-what-might-have-happened questions are always a part of war, of course, and you don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about the answers. All I knew was that I was grateful that battery had been posted so nearby. Prior to our arrival in Tikrit, we'd stopped with the convoy for a bit to review the final stages of our entry into the city and had been ambushed. All hell broke loose during a fierce firefight, with antitank, antiaircraft rounds going off, the whip-whip sound of returned gunfire whizzing over our heads, and 84 mm rockets being launched into a field just outside the city. So we knew that despite the ghost-town appearance of Tikrit, there was plenty of resistance we might encounter. Who knew what we might discover in the city, and all our firepower, while certainly effective, might not be able to protect us from everything. As time went on, we had another weapon available to use that proved very valuable.

As the weeks passed, life took on a kind of routine — a combat normalcy that had you hypervigilant and never fully able to rest at any time. We had no forward operating base established, no outposts, and no real security perimeter established. We spent nights sleeping under Humvees and eventually set up tents beneath large camouflage netting hills we constructed. An hour of sleep here, a twenty-minute nap there was about all the shut-eye we got. For two months, I didn't shower, and nearly every moment was punctuated by gunfire, shouts, or some other disruption. We'd endured sleep deprivation before, but still, a toll was definitely being taken on us.


Excerpted from Trident K9 Warriors by Mike Ritland, Gary Brozek. Copyright © 2013 Mike Ritland and Gary Brozek. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

MIKE RITLAND joined the Navy in 1996 and graduated with BUD/S class 215. After years as a member of SEAL Team 3 he became a BUD/S instructor and then started his own company to train dogs for the west coast SEAL teams. Today he continues to supply working and protection dogs to a host of clients. He also started the K9 Warrior Foundation to help retired military dogs live long and happy lives after their service.

GARY BROZEK has co-authored and ghost-written nearly 20 books, four of which have become New York Times bestsellers. He lives with his wife and their dog, Huckleberry, in the mountains outside of Denver.

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