The 380th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron continues to “Hold the Line” at Al Dhafra Air Force Base, United Arab Emirates. In order to achieve that, consistent training, vigilance and teamwork are required to ensure nothing slips by undetected. Although the Defenders of ADAB are trained, equipped and ready to handle whatever threats may come their way, it doesn’t hurt to have a little help from a friend — especially one that walks on four legs.
The handful of Military Working Dogs and their handlers assigned to the 380th ESFS work together to secure the base by working patrols. With a primary interest in explosive detection, MWDs are used to search buildings, vehicles, gates, perimeter fences and more. Additionally, MWDs are capable of chasing down and apprehending suspects on command.
It’s the job of the handler to read an MWD’s change in behavior. Just as people will change their behavior in certain environments or to certain stimuli, trained MWDs associate the smell of specific odors with getting rewarded and anticipate that reward. Handlers have to be on the lookout for those tells.
“Dogs smell differently than humans.” said Staff Sgt. Mckenzie Langan, an MWD handler assigned to the 380th ESFS. “You might smell a cheeseburger, but the dog will smell the meat, the ketchup, cheese, bun — each individual smell. So they are able to distinguish between that one odor they are supposed to find and everything else.”
Although many dogs have the ability to separate different scents, it take months of training before they are utilized as MWDs.
“Our dogs are either born in San Antonio at Lackland, or the Air Force purchases them over from Europe,” said Langan. “Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds and Labradors are the main three breeds the military uses, but there are other breeds as well. The Navy also has little dogs for their ships.”
Once selected for the program, the canines begin their training at the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland AFB, Texas. Once there, training can take as little as two months to as long as six months, depending on how well a dog’s abilities improve. Prior to being released out for service, MWDs are validated and certified by lead training officials.
“Most dogs are ready to work after they are two years old,” said Tech. Sgt. Latif Self, the kennel master assigned to the 380th ESFS. “But it depends; our one dog Bak is two now, so he got an early start. It all depends on how mature they are and how quickly their abilities improve.”
With their initial training complete, MWDs are assigned to a Security Forces Squadron and are matched with a handler from that squadron. Although MWDs are deemed operational, the training never stops and it’s the job of the handler to tune in to the personality of the dog, and continue developing its skills. For Langan, reading books on new training techniques keeps her on top of her game.
“A really good book is, ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’, It explains positive reinforcement really, really well,” said Langan. “The main thing is keeping dogs accountable 24/7. It feels like an impossible task but you have to try do it. You have to continue training past the training sessions. If I’m only giving corrections or rewards in the obedience yard but not outside of it, that’s when a dog becomes more stubborn. Positive reinforcement is a good way to teach rather than punish. It’s a really useful way to shape their behaviors.”
Langan has been working with her MWD, Adja, for approximately two years.
“Adja was actually my first dog assigned to me, but then my unit did a dog swap until this deployment where I got her back. She’ll probably retire with me as well.”
How long a canine serves as an MWD continues to depend on their performance as well as their health.
“It all depends on how well a dog is doing medically,” said Self. “There’s no specific age limit. We have two dogs out there that are eight and I’ve seen dogs work in the system until they are 12 years old. And that just means their bones are just that healthy and can work that long. But I’ve also seen dogs retire as early as two years old. It just comes down to the medical history.”
When officially retired, previous handlers are contacted and given the opportunity to adopt old companions for an easy life at home on the couch. Tech. Sgt. Self was able to to adopt his last dog, Edo, after he was medically retired.
“I do believe I have the best job in the Air Force,” said Self. “Lots of people have to sit behind a desk and stare at the computer all day. I get to walk around and play with dogs. It’s the camaraderie of the team that’s really cool. ‘Cause that furry little friend really is your partner. Anytime you have a bad day you can go into the kennels and play with those dogs. It really brings you back and helps you realize why we do what we do.”