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Military working dogs: More about the Air Force's canine members

Staff Sgt. Allison Price, 87th Security Forces Squadron military working dog trainer, gazes at Military Working Dog Gino while taking a break between obstacles Feb. 3 at the military working dog obstacle course here. The military working dog handlers use the course to train the dogs for situations that may occur on the job. (U.S. Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Alexis McGee/Released)

Staff Sgt. Allison Price, 87th Security Forces Squadron military working dog trainer, takes a break with military working dog Gino during obstacle training for the MWD on Feb. 3, 2012, at the military working dog obstacle course at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. The military working dog handlers use the course to train the dogs for situations that may occur on the job. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Alexis McGee)

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- Most service members may be familiar with the wingman and battle-buddy concepts employed by the military. But for the group of military working dog trainers here, battle buddies take on a completely different form when battle buddies are dogs.

Some of the military working dogs are born into a puppy program at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and are born and raised to be military working dogs.
Trainers and evaluators from JBSA-Lackland also go on buy trips all over Europe including: Amsterdam, Germany, Holland and Belgium to purchase dogs. The trainers and evaluators conduct a series of tests at the European facilities to determine if the dogs meet the minimum requirements to become military working dogs.

The dogs then attend a two-part, 12-week program at Joint Base SA-Lackland to learn the skills needed to be successful in both detections and patrols.

"During the detection portion, the dog trainers teach the dogs the most basic tasks they will conduct daily including: obedience, odor recognition and odor detection procedures," said Staff Sgt. Allison Price, 87th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler. "In the patrol training, they're trained in six phases. They are only taught the essentials so when they come to us, it's up to us as kennel masters and trainers to progress the dogs to higher levels."

Dogs begin with detection training and then progress to the patrol portion. Some of the dogs make it through the detection portion but don't make it through the patrol portion, while others fail the detection portion but are successfully retrained for patrols. Overall, nearly 88 percent of the dogs who enter training end up successfully completing the course.

Security forces members interested in becoming military working dog handlers are cross trained when they have achieved the rank of Airman 1st class, have two years in service and have obtained their five level within their career field.

Handlers attend a three-month training program at Joint Base SA-Lackland to learn dog-handling procedures.

"Handlers first learn general knowledge about dogs," said Price, a native of Chelsea, Mich. "This consists of basic vet, obedience and patrol training."

The handlers switch dogs half way through the program to learn how to work with different dog behaviors. Training with different dogs helps trainers improve their skills because dog training is an ongoing practice.

"It's an everyday process," said Master at Arms 1st class Sean Stull, 87th SFS military working dog trainer from Douglasville, Ga. "You have to work them daily to get them where you want them. They're not machines."

The military working dogs' mission expands past Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and into combat zones when dogs deploy with their handlers.

"I was deployed a year and a half ago with my dog and my dog stayed in my tent with me because there were no kennels at that location," said Price. "It was like having a best friend 24/7."

Dog handlers and their canine partners provide assistance to the U.S. Secret Service in addition to deploying and protecting Joint Base MDL. The secret service has its own dogs, but requests assistance from the major commands when in need of additional dogs to augment its force. The JB MDL dog handlers have been involved with numerous secret service missions to protect dignitaries throughout the country.

"One of the secret service missions I went on was to President George H.W. Bush's residence," said Tech. Sgt. Blake Hemmann, 87th SFS NCO in charge of military working dogs. "We were responsible for searching anywhere the president may want to go, to ensure the area was clear for his arrival."

Military working dogs safeguard areas, patrol and detect as long as they are capable of performing their job. The dogs' ages don't correspond to how well they complete their job and dogs are not retired based solely on their age.

"I've seen dogs work for only two years, but I've also seen dogs work for up to thirteen years," said Price. "It all just depends on the dog. The dog that was thirteen years old became ill with cancer and had to be euthanized, which is unfortunate because we try to adopt the dogs out when they retire."

Dogs undergo a series of tests when they retire to gauge their temperament and determine if they are suitable for adoption. Handlers are given the first opportunity to adopt their working dog, but if the handlers don't adopt the dogs, they are offered to the public for adoption.

"When the dogs are a safety concern they can't go out to the general public," said Hemmann, native of Watervliet, Mich. "If the dogs aren't a safety concern though, it's always our goal to adopt them out once they retire."

Military working dogs serve their country and when it's time for them to retire, they get the opportunity for a new home and a career change from a working dog to a pet.

Call (800) 531-1066 if you are interested in adopting a former military working dog.