March 15, 2006 Somewhere between Rin Tin Tin and RoboCop, Zeko the German Shepherd is a thoroughly modern 21st century canine superhero, displaying all of the character traits which have made dog man’s best friend. Zeko is deployed with the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, stationed at Forward Operating Base McHenry in Iraq as an explosive detection dog. As such Zeko’s special bomb sniffing gear includes a specially modified ballistic vest and specially made ballistic "doggles” designed to keep him intact in the case of mishap. Zeko is not just loyal and brave but acutely talented – all explosive detection dogs must have a minimum 95-percent success rate on explosive detection - Zeko is currently tested at 98.7 percent, and additionally trained in desert warfare. He has found improvised bombs buried several feet in the hard desert ground.
“He’s got a good rapport with the Soldiers,” said Staff Sgt. David Silberman, Zeko’s kennel master and partner for nearly two and a half years now.
“Our missions are really broad; we support everything,” Silberman reflected. “Every day we are learning something different for us to do.”
When it comes to his job, Zeko may be at the top of his game, but Silberman says he trains on a regular basis, just like Soldiers.
Silberman said it takes on average two and a half years to get an explosive dog certified, but it does not end there; each dog must also go through an annual certification. Each dog must have a minimum 95-percent success rate on explosive detection or the dog is decertified.
“Explosive dogs are trained in nine different explosive odors,” Silberman stated confidently, while petting his partner. “He’s got to find every single one; he can’t miss them.”
Although Zeko is currently tested at 98.7 percent, and trained in desert warfare, Silberman takes it upon himself to keep their team up to the task by training everyday. Using a newly built training course, Zeko practices many different obstacles. Zeko warms up, walking through a small jump, followed by stairs and tunnels.
The real workout starts when shouts echo through the air, followed by yelping. Silberman holds Zeko tightly, while a volunteer Soldier wearing a protective sleeve runs. Then, at the right moment, Silberman releases the now vicious dog. Zeko sprints after the man, leaping into the air and locking his jaw on the Soldier’s protected arm.
Attempts to shake him off fail as Zeko just bites harder. Then with a single command from his handler, Zeko releases the Soldier and returns to sit next to Silberman. A few seconds later, Zeko is rewarded with playful hugs and praises.
Not only does this furry four-legged Soldier pull his weight in the fight against improvised explosive devices, he has become very protective of his new Bastogne comrades.
“We get to spend a lot of time with [Soldiers], he’s really close, and really protective of them,” Silberman said. “When we are taking rounds, he’s watching and really alert of his Soldiers, so he’s got a pretty good rapport with those guys.”