An Israeli elementary school comes alive at night, when most are sound asleep. The sounds of people running, of dogs barking and of loud thuds can be heard. Flashlights cast eerie shadows on the playground walls. The source of all of the activity is the transpiring of a training session for the elite IDF canine unit called Oketz (“sting”). Oketz specializes in training and handling dogs for military applications.
Oketz was founded in 1939 as part of the Haganah, but it was dismantled in 1954. In 1974, following the wave of terrorist attacks that hit Israel in the early 1970s, a new unit was established. It consisted of only eleven soldiers. In time, the number grew. In the 1970s and 1980s the unit participated in dozens of missions.
Until 1988, Oketz operated in total secrecy. The first public acknowledgement of the canine unit came during a hostage rescue at Kibbutz Misgav Am on the Lebanese border. For a long time, the unit’s existence was kept in the shadows so as not to offend Holocaust survivors who will never forget the image of Nazi soldiers unleashing their attack dogs.
Originally, Oketz trained its dogs to attack kidnappers. Since then, training has become more specialized, and each dog is trained in a certain specialty. Each of the unit’s three companies is organized according to the dogs’ designated missions: neutralizing terrorists in combat situations; explosives detection; and search and rescue.
Oketz is an elite army unit. Out of approximately 300 soldiers who apply, only twenty-five are chosen annually. There are some females in the unit. The soldiers must be strong both mentally and physically.
Before the IDF force enters an area, a dog is sent in. Dogs are used to locate improvised explosive devices (IED) when clearing military roads, scanning structures for booby-traps and wherever there is suspicion of explosives. There are dogs stationed at checkpoints in Judea and Samaria, and their job is to sniff out weapons in passing vehicles. Other dogs are trained as tracking and chasing dogs for manhunts and for detecting breaches at the borders. Since 2002, Oketz has been able to prevent at least 200 suicide bomb attacks in the center of Israel.
Oketz’s work includes rescue missions during military operations, as in the case of a helicopter crash or an armored personnel carrier that has been detonated by an IED. The dogs are trained not to touch the trapped people—just to locate them. Oketz soldiers and their dogs have been sent abroad following natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Oketz is considered one of the best canine units in the world. Equivalent units from other countries come to Israel to train with it. The training in Oketz is implemented within the unit from A to Z, and it is adapted to meet prevailing field conditions. In other armies, the dogs are supposed to be versed in all types of missions and contingencies. Without specialization in a particular field, performance is bound to suffer.
Oketz prefers the Belgian Shepherd over the German Shepherd and Rottweiler, which were employed by the unit in the past. The Belgian Shepherd is large enough to effectively attack an enemy while still being little enough to be picked up by its handler. Moreover, the dogs’ coats are short and of a neutral to fair color, making them less prone to heatstroke. Some of the dogs are sabras, while others are imported. The canines receive five-star treatment. Once a week a veterinarian checks each dog, they receive the best food and their kennels are spacious and comfortable.
When the dogs need medical care, there is a clinic which meets their needs. If a dog goes into shock, he is cared for in the clinic. Prozac may be given, and if the dog is still suffering, he stays with his handler in his room and sleeps there.
At two months, the puppies start working. They need to get used to certain smells, to people and to gunfire. At four months, eight months and fourteen months they undergo evaluative tests. Only after eight months of training does each soldier get his/her dog who is about a year and a half old.
Now the mutual learning stage commences. The training regimen continues with a handler who has exclusive responsibility for his/her dog. The Oketz training program lasts for a year and four months. It is divided into two stages; there are four months of basic infantry training and two months of advanced infantry training. Those who make it through are sent to the unit for another four months of instructions and exercises in navigation, counterterror and rough terrain combat. During the second stage, the soldiers are divided into companies and learn how to work with their dogs.
The explosive detection dogs must be extremely disciplined and quiet; search and rescue dogs need a highly developed sense of smell; and attack dogs require strength and fearlessness. As one officer explained, “An attack dog is a dominant animal with very powerful instincts. 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.” I have a relative who served in Oketz as a soldier and later on as an officer. Despite the fact that the handlers wear protective gear called a “bite suit”, our relative still had marks on his arms and hands from his dog’s teeth.
In a film about Oketz, one soldier, who spoke in English, had this to say, “Me and my dog has a very close relationship. We are best friends. My dog will protect my life, my friend’s life and other lives and I’ll do everything I can to bring him back safely. He is a part of me. I look at him and I see what he’s feeling. Honestly, when we go to all sorts of missions we go out alone, me and my dog with the unit. Honestly, he strengthens you there. This is what gives you the strength. I look at him and he gives you the strength to continue and do everything.”
Sometimes dogs are killed during a mission, such as when dogs went into tunnels in Aza and were blown up by our enemies. There is a canine cemetery on the Oketz base for dogs killed in action. There is a monument in the center of the cemetery which is thus engraved:
Walk softly among these stones for here lie heroes.
They carried no rifle nor wore a uniform
But always followed orders.
They went into battle with trust and love of duty.
Who amongst us can say we were better
Walk softly for here lie soldiers of Israel. (J. Braverman)
Regarding the fallen dogs, one officer stated, “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.”
Like people, these specially trained dogs have a retirement age, which is usually at about seven years old. It is not uncommon for a dog to go home to the soldier’s family. The dog is trained so that he can function in civilian life. Even after getting used to his “family”, outside of the home, the dog wears a muzzle.
The well-known adage that a dog is man’s best friend, is so applicable to the dogs in the Oketz canine unit. May HaShem watch over these four-footed friends and heroes of Israel.
Adina Hershberg is a freelance writer who made aliyah in 1981; she has been living in Gush Etzion for almost sixteen years.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.