Man’s Best Friend: IDF’s Elite Canine Unit

“Oketz” (Hebrew: ‘Sting’) is the elite canine unit of the IDF. Each combat unit in the army needs the help of dogs, from detecting explosives to cleaning out buildings. Oketz fills this need with soldiers who are trained to work with every combat unit in the IDF, whether it’s with attack dogs, chase dogs, or bomb sniffers. The unit is also open to female soldiers.

Meet Alon and Nitzan, two brothers who are part of the Oketz pack.

Growing up with a dog at home, Nitzan and Alon both shared the dream of serving in the Oketz unit. Nitzan, 21, was the first of the two brothers to join Oketz in 2008. Shortly after his enlistment, Alon, 19, was inspired by his brother to join the same unit.

Oketz Soldiers with Dogs Under the Tree

Nitzan (right) and Alon (left) stand with their dogs in the forest

The brothers explained that in order to get into Oketz, they had to pass a rigorous three-day tryout session. Once they passed the tryouts, they were put through a training course of approximately 17 months. Nitzan gives us some proportions:

“220 soldiers show up to the tryouts and only 30 pass.”

“Throughout the course, we’re taught to work with every unit in the army, so as you can expect, we’re trained for everything”, says Nitzan. Some of the many subjects the soldiers specialize in are parachuting, urban warfare and counterterrorism.

Both Nitzan and Alon agree that one of the best moments of their army service lies in the last four months of the course, when they are given a dog to work with for the next 1.5 years. Alon received a female Belgian Shepherd bomb sniffer, and Nitzan a male one.

Oketz Brothers Sit on the Hill

Nitzan (right) and Alon (left) perch on the mound with their canine partners

Oketz has three types of dogs: Belgian, German, and Holland Shepherds. Most of the dogs are imported from their source countries at a very young age in order to ensure the dog is raised properly. The dogs are considered active in Oketz anywhere from the age of one to seven. After the combat dog reaches seven years of age, they become “civilians” and are released home with their last soldier-trainer.

1. What is the hardest part of being in Oketz?
Nitzan: “I’m being released in one week and it will be very difficult to leave my friends and the dog that I have learned to love.”

Alon: “Not seeing my friends in Oketz for up to a month at times, since I am usually away carrying out missions with other units.”

2. What are your best memories of Oketz?
Nitzan: “The last day of the 1.5 year training course – climbing up a steep mountain with cargo on my back and my dog pulling me every which way. I felt like a king when I reached the top of the mountain. You don’t need to travel to South America to get a view like that. The second one is seeing my brother join me at base after his last trek in the training course.”

Alon: “Seeing my brother for the first time in Oketz after a long training course, and getting my female Belgian Shepherd.”

3. Nitzan, you’re being  released in a week, what are your big plans after Oketz?
“‘I’m thinking of going to the States and working with a company that trains dogs for the army or the police. Also, since I enjoyed commanding soldiers in the army, I want to manage staff someday for a business.”

Oketz Soldier and his Dog

4. Any tips you can give us for our dog lovers out there?
Nitzan and Alon: “It is important to be dominant with your dog. One owner must always stick to their dog during training. The dog will get confused if they’re taking orders from more than one owner. Never be on the same level as your dog, always be above him. For example, if your dog is lying on the floor, then do not lay next to him, instead sit on the couch above him.”