Marine Corps Sgt. Timothy Spalti found himself at a crossroads in 2010.
He had just returned from an exhausting eight months in Afghanistan, during which he and his bomb-detecting dog, Tigo, deployed with British Special Forces, participated in more than 30 firefights and found six improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Tigo, a Belgian Malinois, was 9 years old and suffering from ailing hips. “He was done; he couldn’t deploy again,” said Spalti. Also, possibly because of the stress of the deployment, during which he and Spalti racked up 750 mission-hours, Tigo had become a bit aggressive.
As Spalti prepared to be deployed again with a different dog, he was told that Tigo probably would be euthanized.
Then an option developed for Spalti, a possible way to save his partner’s life.
A recruiter for the Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1), which is responsible for the helicopter transportation of the president and other high-level officials, came looking for Marines to work security.
“I talked to him about Tigo,” said Spalti, who now lives in a cabin in Holland. “Normally you have to be married to get BAH, the basic allowance for housing, unless there are other circumstances. I told him that if he could get me BAH, so I could live in town and be able to take care of Tigo, I’d come work for HMX-1. He made that happen, so I bowed out of the deployment and took the job in Virginia, working for the president, and adopted Tigo. The process of adopting a military dog can be pretty lengthy, but I had some friends, and my command liked me, so my adoption of Tigo got pushed through in two months.”
Years after making that decision, Spalti said, “I would have much rather gone back to Afghanistan, but I don’t regret it at all.”
And possibly knowing that he is no longer in danger from enemy fighters or wild dogs in Afghanistan, Tigo has relaxed and is enjoying life. “He adjusted to civilian life pretty well,” said Spalti. “We haven’t had any incidents since he retired.”
The story of this dedicated Marine and his canine partner started in 2002, when Tigo was purchased from an Israeli training program for $100,000, the first of two trained K-9s to come from that country. Tigo served two deployments in Iraq with a handler who later left the Marine Corps.
Spalti, a native of Machias, enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school and left for basic training July 2, 2007. His original goal was to be a military police officer, but when he learned about the K-9 option, he pursued that.
“Once I started learning how to train dogs, I fell in love with it,” said Spalti. “It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
While he was attending K-9 school, which produced dual-trained dogs that both sniff out drugs or bombs and act as guards, Spalti said he heard about the Specialized Search Dog program, which would leave the military police aspect out of the equation. Only three or four of the 50 or 60 people in the K-9 program were selected for Specialized Search Dog training in San Antonio. Spalti was one of them.
In this program, which was developed in Israel, he said, “you train the dog to work off-leash, so rather than the dog finding a bomb when he is 6 feet away from you on a leash, the dog has radios on its back, and you tell them where to search from far ahead of you.”
The dogs are trained to detect the scent of components used in the IEDs, which have killed thousands of coalition troops and wounded many thousands more.
Tigo was trained to respond to commands given over a radio. He could operate some 500 yards away from Spalti, who would watch his behavior through binoculars, but in the villages of Afghanistan, the pair had to work far closer.
“There are too many wild dogs in Afghanistan to do that safely,” said Spalti. The pair, accompanied by a sniper who protected them while Tigo searched for bombs and Spalti watched Tigo, walked in front of the British Special Forces patrol armed with metal detectors “because no method of detecting them is 100 percent.”
Spalti had to carefully watch Tigo’s behavior, which changed when he got the first whiff of the ingredients of a deadly IED. His posture would change and he would sniff back and forth in the “cone of scent,” trying to home in on its source.
“Normally before he would get too close, I would call him back, because if you know there’s an IED in the area, that’s the end of our job, which is to identify the threat, not to confirm it,” said Spalti. “If you see wires or a pressure plate, our job is done and there’s no more reason to risk the dog to confirm it.”
Toward the end of their deployment, it became clear that Tigo’s hips were bothering him, Spalti said. His days as a working Marine Corps dog were over.
After a few years with HMX-1, Spalti, too, was on to a new life. He had earned the rank of sergeant, including a prestigious battlefield promotion in April 2010, which gave Tigo the informal rank of staff sergeant. “It’s the custom that dogs are given the rank one above their handler’s,” said Spalti. Discharged one year ago, Spalti brought Tigo home to Western New York.
With about two years of college credits he had earned during his Marine Corps years, Spalti enrolled at SUNY Buffalo State last spring. He is studying business.
Spalti is also the first recipient of the school’s Efner “Lucky” Davis Returning Combat Veteran Scholarship. Davis, a World War II veteran, donated $402,000 in a charitable gift annuity to the college’s Transforming Lives campaign, endowing the scholarship fund for returning Western New York combat veterans. “It was awesome to get recognized by the school like that,” said Spalti, who met Davis at a ceremony dedicating the school flagpole to Davis.
While Spalti is immersed in his studies and thinking of possibly continuing on to get a master’s degree, Tigo, now 13, is enjoying life far from the deserts of Afghanistan. “He’s on hip medication, so he’s got his good days and his bad days,” said Spalti. “Hopefully he makes it through the year.”
Tigo is also getting used to a new addition to the family, a white German Shepherd named Rogue that Spalti bought from a breeder near Darien. At first, Tigo “wasn’t too happy about” the arrival of the 7-month-old female, said Spalti. “But they are getting used to each other now.”