Not your average animal-- Military working dogs support security forces' missions
Staff Sgt. Brent Olson and Staff Sgt. Sansha Richard enact an aggressor situation where military working dog, Art, is given the order to "attack." (U.S. Air Force photo by Rebecca Burylo)
by Rebecca Burylo
Air University Public Affairs
1/4/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- -- Sweeping buildings on a mission to protect, their noses are their most dangerous weapon.
With a heightened sensitivity, more acute than a human's sense of smell, able to sniff out the slightest trace of explosive material or narcotics, these canines are more than man's best friend - they are warriors.
Strong, muscular and loyal, German shepherds and Belgian Malinois like the 42nd Security Forces Squadron's Art, Alissa and Elza are part of a force of military working dogs responsible for saving lives and protecting property. The bond formed with their handlers, those responsible for their well-being and training, is just as strong, according to kennel master Master Sgt. Jonathan Curl.
"Our dogs get a lot of love here from their handlers," he said. "They get their full attention eight hours a day and more. They are always training."
Trained for weapon searches, explosives and drug detection, search and rescue, security and patrol and guard duty, Maxwell's military working dogs assist security forces in keeping active and retired military, civilians, contractors and families safe.
Patrolling the base eight hours each day, five days a week, the dogs and their handlers conduct building checks and investigate emergency and alarm activations, bomb threats, suspicious packages and suspicious persons. Just being stationed at one of the base entrances, military working dogs act as a crime deterrent, said Curl.
"Dogs are seen as a force-multiplier," he said. "Most people have a natural fear of dogs, so the dogs act more like a deterrent. People are less likely to commit a crime when they see a dog around."
Art is the only narcotics dog on the team and is specialized in detecting any trace of illegal drugs. The others are trained to seek out and alert their handlers to explosives. Under handler Staff Sgt. Sansha Richard, Art is laid back and always happy.
"She just wants to play, play, play," she said.
Richard and Art's favorite spot to play is at the softball fields. A certified patrolman, Richard decided to pursue the military working dog program rather than continuing in combat arms. Coming aboard in late June, she wished she had joined sooner. There is nothing else she would rather do.
"I've always loved dogs, so working here where you can come to work every day and train your dog and play with your dog is just great," she said. "I only wish I had started earlier. You grow with the dogs, like you would a friend, but it's a friendship for a lifetime. They're always there for you."
Working dogs, like the eight assigned to Maxwell's 42nd SFS, are first certified in basic training and specialized skills upon becoming 1-year-old at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Breeding Program is located. Their training continues once they are assigned to their base and then to their handler, Curl said.
"Training never ends," he said. "You and your dog are always learning new things. There's always new information coming out on how to train your dog better."
One of the training techniques used is voice association. By using different tones of voice, followed by a certain action, dogs can connect the action with the handler's pitch in their voice.
For instance, a high-pitched "good girl" while petting the dog is a sign of reward, whereas a deeper voice followed by a correction tells the dog she acted inappropriately. Teaching is made to be fun, however, with the use of rubber balls and toys, according to Staff Sgt. Brent Olson.
"That's what they respond best to: having fun," he said. "You want them to obey because they like you, not because they fear you."
One demonstration requires a line of suitcases where one contains the scent of a weapon or a drug. When the dog detects which suitcase contains the scent, it is rewarded with a toy to represent a job well-done.
Training occurs no matter what the situation, whether they are in the middle of formal training sessions at the kennel's obstacle course, patrolling the base, during feeding time, grooming or just playing fetch. Taking advantage of these opportunities allows the handler and dog to create a lasting relationship.
Building a rapport with their dogs is one of the trainers' key initiatives. Together, dog and handler are deployed as a team, and without a foundation of trust, loyalty, obedience and friendship, it could cost them their lives. They must work as one to protect one another.
Olson knew upon graduating high school that he wanted to work alongside them.
"You're always going to need dogs," Olson said. "They are the ones up front finding bombs that could kill. I felt like I am making a difference working with them."
Olson received his Purple Heart following his tour in Afghanistan in 2010, and his former military working dog companion, Blek, was inducted into the Alabama Animal Hall of Fame for his demonstration of loyalty, courage and service.
In a three-day mission to secure one of the villages, Olson and Blek swept a building for bombs and hostiles. A pressure plate detonated a staircase near them, which set off a series of five mortar rounds. Both Olson and Blek sustained injuries from flying shrapnel.
Blek lost his hearing and could no longer perform as a military working dog. Soon after, Olson put in a request to adopt Blek into his family, and the retired dog is still much a part of Olson's life.
German shepherds have served as military patrol and working dogs as early as World War I and officially entered the service in March 1942 as a part of the Army's K-9 Corps. A monument with a plaque is on display at Gunter's Enlisted Heritage Research Institute honoring their services.