Man’s best friend, Military’s best scavenger

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Michael Washburn
  • 355th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Dogs have become an extra member of the American family. They follow their owners wherever they go, they sleep in their master's beds, they stealthily steal food off the dining room table and because of the Military Working Dog Program, they help defend and protect Americans at home and abroad.

Military working dogs are different than the dog some keep as pets. Working dogs receive special training making them extremely adept at detection.

According to a recent pet owner survey compiled by the Humane Society of the United States, there are approximately 77.5 million owned dogs in the U.S., and 39 percent of U.S. households own at least one dog.

Dogs are incredibly smart animals. They can learn to assist those who are blind, hearing-impaired or handicapped. Studies have shown that the average dog has a mental ability of a two-year-old child, and can learn to understand around 165 words including signals and gestures. Dogs in the top 20 percent in intelligence can learn around 250 words.

Staff Sgt. Jose Valdez, a military working dog trainer at the D-M K-9 unit, details the process of selecting and training military working dogs.

"The three breeds of dogs we look for are Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherds and German Shepherds," Sergeant Valdez said. "We usually get our dogs from overseas. We look for specific traits in the dog that will help complete our mission, such as how they interact with their toys. If the dog's toy gets lost, how long will they hunt for it, will they give up right away or are they determined to find it? We want to see a confidant dog, one that shows a lot of drive and energy."

Along with intelligence, dogs also have a keen sense of smell, between 50 - 100 times more powerful than humans. With their powerful noses, they're a highly-sought-after addition to law enforcement agencies and military branches.

In addition to getting the dogs from overseas, the Air Force also breeds them at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

"We also have a puppy program where we breed our own dogs so we know everything about them," Sergeant Valdez said. "We don't want to buy a dog only to find out months later that it has medical issue that wasn't detected in the initial purchase."

After the dogs are selected, they begin their 120 days of training at Lackland. Once there, the dogs receive obedience training and more advanced techniques such as detecting specific substances.

"After their initial training, when they get on base here, they have a base-line understanding of what they need to do," Sergeant Valdez described. "It's up to us to take the dogs and advance them in the detection of explosives, narcotics and people."

The dogs; however, are not the only ones being trained.

"As a handler, we have to train as well," Sergeant Valdez noted. "We go to Lackland for a three-month course where half the time there consists of training on how to release the dog to bite, and the other half is on detection."

Once the training at Lackland is complete, it doesn't mean that there is nothing else the dog or the handler can learn.

"The training that we give the dogs lasts through their entire career," Sergeant Valdez said. "We're always looking to progress the dogs, always looking to push the dog to learn more and more. It's the same for the handlers; we're always trying to get better."

Each handler trains and works with a specific dog. Every day, the handler takes the dog out to the confidence course and runs the dog through the various obstacles. "We do this to build up the dog's confidence for anything that we may encounter while working," Sergeant Valdez continued. "The last place you want to find out that your dog is scared to jump over something or climb stairs is when they're chasing a suspect. We do all that training now, so when a situation like that occurs, our working dogs are ready for it. We also train the dogs to attack without commands, but we do have positive control over them at all times, as soon as the dog senses that the handlers in danger he'll attack."

The dog will also only respond to the handler's commands. If the suspect starts to shout out commands, the dog won't listen and still attacks.

"Dogs understand tone," Sergeant Valdez noted. "The handler's tone is different from someone else, so even though the suspect may say the same word, the tone the dog picks-up sounds different."
The training the dogs receive truly makes them a formidable opponent against our enemies.

"The MWD program is definitely a force multiplier," Sergeant Valdez said. "It plays a vital role in not only getting the mission accomplished stateside, but also down-range."

Depending on the health of the MWD, they can have a lengthy career. "The dogs get to the base when they're around two years old and work until they're 10 or 11," Sergeant Valdez said.

After "retiring" from service, the dogs can be adopted.

"The dogs enter the disposition process." Sergeant Valdez added, "There is a checklist that the handlers and a veterinarian have to go over to see if the dog is suitable for adoption. Unfortunately, if the dog is too aggressive for a family, we try and give them to law enforcement agencies where a trained handler can take them."

Though the training process involved to produce a detection capable canine may be challenging, the results are invaluable.

"The importances that MWDs bring to the mission are many," Sergeant Valdez said. "Not only do they have a superior detection capability, they also provide a psychological deterrence. The impact that MWDs have had downrange is undeniable, the amount of explosives and the lives saved have been numerous."

Because of the constant training involved, a special bond is formed between the trainer and the dog. From the way the trainers work with the dog and their attitude, it's clear to see that they truly love their job.

"The whole reason I joined the Air Force was to be able to work with canines," Sergeant Valdez commented. "I get to come to work and truly enjoy what I do. The loyalty that a canine gives to his handler is second-to-none."