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Military working dogs wag their tails and sharpen their skills at JBER

By Air Force 2nd Lt. Michael Trent Harrington | JBER Public Affairs | Sept. 5, 2013

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — The sun hung low over the morning horizon. The rumble of traffic melted into a muffled rustle of grass, damp and short, then of footfalls rushing closer and faster, faster, faster. The jangle of brass clinked in the chill air, punctuation marks for panted breaths. A single bark echoed, then another, pushed before the quickening paces like a sound wave of compressed air as it leaves a muzzle--here not a rifle but the slobbery, snarling muzzle of a dog.

A third bark was swallowed in a growl, the unmistakable, guttural vibration of a dog nearing its prey. The animal leapt and, ferocious and inescapable, closed the final yards in the air.

The target toppled to the ground in a flurry of sharp white canine teeth and sleek brown canine fur. He kicked. He flailed and struggled. The dog remained clamped, jaw shaking, eyes widened, as loyal to the task at hand as to his keeper. He ripped and pulled until a shouted "OUT" rang out. The dog obeyed on cue and instantly released its grip. The animal sat on its back haunches and waited patiently, tail wagging, tongue hanging to one side.

Dog handlers with the 673d Security Forces Squadron volunteer for a particularly ruff--rough, even--line of work. The road to becoming a military working dog handler is lengthy. Airmen must possess three years of experience in security forces and must be accepted for work with canines. Yet the road for the dogs themselves is nothing to wag a tail at, either.

A military working dog starts its Air Force life just like any other basic recruit, as a bouncy, helpless puppy at sunny Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. There, the 341st Training Squadron administers the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program, raising German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois breeds. Before being paired with a handler, the puppies are given to foster families who help the animal adjust to various social settings. Then they are monitored through various stages of readiness and training.

The initial period for a dog-and-handler team on base, known as the rapport phase, essentially involves military working dogs re-learning their most fundamental talent, and the one oftentimes most critical downrange--serving as (air-) man's best friend.

"The first phase involves taking the dogs around, playing with them, then working up towards mission-oriented tasks like explosives detection and building searches," said Senior Airman Shawn Witcher, 673d SFS MWD handler. "Everything we do starts--has to start, really--with mutual trust."

All the repetition and shared time helps mesh the two personalities. A well-trained dog can smell, hear and see better than any human under most circumstances. Teaching the dog to detect specific stimuli and communicate that information to a handler is equal parts art and psychology.

The threats facing them are as varied as the dogs themselves. Some are playful and loud, others more reserved. Witcher's military working dog, Ajax, is a curious seven-year-old German Shepherd, and has been on station at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson for five years. But even dogs as social as Ajax share an uncommonly large responsibility for the safety of their teams. Early every morning, a handler runs his or her dog through a series of obedience tasks, obstacles and scenarios.

"One of the most rewarding things is to take a brand-new dog and watch them develop and improve," said Staff Sgt. Stacy Glass, 673d SFS MWD handler.

In a combat or crisis scenario, a handler must be able to trust his or her dog from the very first moment. Indeed, dogs tend to deploy frequently precisely because they can do what even the most sophisticated technology often cannot in terms of explosive detection, tracking and threat mitigation. The dogs do it all with an acute awareness of their surroundings and an anxious desire to protect their handlers that computerized equipment has not yet been able to replicate. Recently, a Belgian Malinois dog became the first military working dog to be awarded a medal for valor after she subdued a would-be ambusher in Afghanistan, despite receiving several bullet wounds at close range.

"The dogs themselves serve as a psychological deterrent, at the gate, around base, and while out on missions," Witcher said.

Thus, the dogs are oftentimes better at detecting potential hazards than, say, an electronic explosives "sniffer" and more likely to deter an incident from occurring in the first place.

Military working dogs and their handlers play hard and train harder. The four-legged guardians of the base community embody the best in all service members--loyalty, dedication, determination--and do it all without a paycheck.

Few would say no, however, to the occasional tennis ball.