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Across the Department of Defense, military working dogs serve many purposes. K-9’s are utilized to subdue suspects, find specific items, and people. Most are only capable of one or two of these functions; Diego and Yenkie, residents of the Marine Corps Base Hawaii Provost Marshal’s Office kennels, are a bit different.

Typically, military working dogs are dual purpose; Diego and Yenkie, however, are the first K-9’s in DoD law enforcement to fulfill all three of these functions.

“With these two military working dogs, we have added the combat tracking asset in the Provost Marshal area of operations,” said U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Matthew Settle, kennel master, PMO, MCBH. “I picked the dogs that had the characteristics of good tracking dogs and that had that extra drive, subsequently, I would train the handlers.” he said.

Working with K-9’s comes with its own set of challenges, Settle said.

“It’s probably the hardest specialty that we have in the military working dog program because it’s you against them,” Settle explained. “Because of that, I need somebody that can think on their feet while they’re moving forward. I look for those types of attributes, the resiliency, trainability, and critical thinking.”

These attributes are evident in Yenkie and Diego’s handlers, Settle said.

“Prior to this base I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, I was a K-9 handler for two years, and Staff Sgt. Settle was my training instructor,” said Sgt. Brandon Sperlazza, military working dog handler, PMO, MCBH. “When he moved to Hawaii and became a kennel master he pulled me over to help with training the dogs, considering I also had tracking experience.”

Recently, the handlers and their dogs put their tracking capability to use.

“We had an instance recently where a parent called 9-1-1 and said their child just ran away,” Sperlazza said. “We were able to arrive on scene, get an article of clothing that the child had worn, and track that child pretty much footprint to footprint.”

Sperlazza emphasized the importance of teamwork when it comes to training the dogs. Each K-9 has their own particular strengths that complement each other.

“Before Staff Sgt. Settle began the combat tracking dog course, Diego and I were already working together as a team,” explained Danny Narvaza, military police officer, PMO, MCBH. “We’ve been teamed up for about a year already.”

Diego employs a different approach to his work than Yenkie, Narvaza said.

“Instead of just using his eyes, Diego used his nose a lot more,” Narvaza said, “Tracking dogs specifically have to have more value and determination displayed in their search for things rather than just looking with their eyes.”

Aside from their professional lives, the handlers have a unique personal relationship with their dogs, Narvaza said.

“Diego is goofy but he is one of the most high maintenance dogs- he is allergic to everything,” Narvaza said with a laugh. “I have to clean his ears every other day, give him a bath with special soap, and he has a special diet.”

Despite the significant time investments, working with the K-9’s is extremely rewarding, Sperlazza said.

16 JAN 2020 | Lance Cpl. Samantha SanchezMarine Corps Base Hawaii

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Joe Darinsig - March 29, 2020

The story on the Marine Scout Dogs was fabulous…. These dogs are amazing and should get all the credit they deserve. I have always respected the Police, Military K-9 dogs as their keen sence of smell and hearing makes them as human as we are. They become part of the trainers and families.

Gene Hays - March 29, 2020

Following up on your story about military working dogs:
Marine Scout Dogs In Support of the Combined Action Platoons During the Vietnam War, John Denecke served as a Scout Dog Handler with his dog, Rex5A31, with the 3rd Combined Action Group in 1969. He wrote: “A Scout Dog Team was a big advantage to these (Combined Action Platoon) small units because of the dog’s ability to detect and search out the enemy much quicker than a human could. The handler was only as good as the dog and the most important asset was the handler’s ability to read his dog’s alert and act upon it.” Denecke continued that too many dogs have similar training, but no two dogs are the same. He further explained that it was vitally important for the handler to really know his dog and learn what every move means; it was the only way the dog could communicate with the handler:
The most important effect Rex had when working in the villages was the psychological one. Since the enemy worked in small numbers when trying to penetrate a village, they would avoid one where they thought a dog team was working, because they knew the dog’s capabilities for early detection and also the dog’s eagerness to attack if the handler thought it was needed. Never staying in one village for a long period of time was also an advantage because the enemy was never sure where you were and the dog worked best in strange areas. Most of our experiences with these small units were night ambushes and daytime search and destroy missions. Once Rex had his work collar on and we started moving out, he knew what to do. We usually walked about 20 meters out in front of the column so that if Rex did alert on anything, I could react and protect him because his job was done. The rest was up to the squad. Often we ended up ambushing the enemy who had intended to ambush us because of Rex’s outstanding sense of smell and danger. A day does not go by in my life that I don’t think of Rex and wish he could have come home with me. I’ll never forget him as long as I live. He is the reason I am still living. Semper Fi, Rex, John J. Denecke, January, 1970.
From former Combined Action Platoon Marine Tim Duffie: “John J. Denecke died in June of 1998, shortly after he submitted this story to the Combined Action Platoon website I created. I received an email from his family telling me how pleased he was to know Rex will continue to be honored on the website.” Excerpt from Combined Action by Gene Hays, available at

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