By Hannah Simmons
It has been said that a dog is a man's best friend. Whether dogs live in a home with a family or live to find intruders and explosives, dogs live to please their owner. A dog might be trained to search for drugs or explosive devices, but when the owner takes a ball out of his or her pocket, the dog is ready to play.
A Military Working Dog (MWD) team consists of dogs and dog handlers. Each dog is paired with a handler and together they work to keep people safe from bomb threats, search for drugs in vehicles and other areas and attack intruders when needed.
There are currently seven K-9s on the MWD team aboard Naval Air Station Jacksonville (NAS Jax). The oldest is a 9-year-old Labrador Retriever named Joker who works with his handler, MA2 Matthew Pellegrino. MA2 Calvin Green handles Baba, a 6-year-old German Shepherd, and is currently training a 2-year-old German Shepherd named Dixi. MA1 David Smith is partnered with 6-year-old Freddy. MA2 Robert Muccino is the handler for 5-year-old Belgian Malinois Bruno. MA1 James Bearden handles a two-year-old Belgian Malinois named Fredo.
Bearden and Fredo were just recently command certified.
Last year, Green travelled to Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas for three months taking part in the initial dog training process at the Department of Defense (DoD) Dog Training School. According to Green, the experience has helped improve the productivity and knowledge of the entire NAS Jax MWD team.
"Training dogs requires consistency and patience," said Green. "When a dog has correctly followed orders, it's important to reward the dog. Dogs love to hear when they've done a good job."
When the NAS Jax MWD team receives a new dog, Bearden decides which dog and handler would form a good team.
"Each dog is different in how he or she works and handles problems and each handler is different." Bearden said, "It's all about finding that meshing point where the handler and the dog can mesh together and work as a team. This only comes with spending time together and building a bond."
The team trains together and pass testing requirements to become command certified by the base commanding officer. The dog and the handler go through a series of detection trials. The dog must respond correctly in all settings of the course. The K-9 must find all materials hidden, whether those materials are drugs or explosives depending on the area in which the dog is to be certified.
Patrol training requires the dogs to be able to take down a suspect. Once a dog team is certified, they work on the installation during vehicle inspections, as well as providing humanitarian aid within the community and assisting local law enforcement agencies.
Bearden said within the last three months, the NAS Jax MWD Team has supported six United States Secret Service missions. The MWD Teams are also required to deploy around the world in support of DoD requirements.
The MWD Teams also spend time participating in community service events by showcasing the dog's abilities to local school groups both on and off the station.
The K-9s are recruited from special breeders overseas, as well as the breeding program located at the DoD Dog Training School at Lackland Air Force Base. Once the puppies are old enough to be weaned off of their mothers, they are fostered out and brought back when they are six-months-old. The dogs are assigned to handlers and receive obedience training. The K-9s are taught how to search buildings, intruder detection skills, attack phases, and stand-off phases. After initial training, the dogs are separated into explosive certification training and drug certification training. Once they are certified, they are sent out to a Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Army base. The DoD Dog Training School is a joint effort between the military branches of the United States.
All dogs are required to participate in daily training to detect probable causes. During a drug search, the MWD must be properly certified in order to respond correctly. An incorrect response could violate an individual's right to privacy.
Each dog is trained to conduct patrol work and use their senses to detect an intruder. The main way a handler can tell if a dog senses an intruder is when it exhibits a change in behavior.
Bearden said, "From working so closely together, I'm able to read subtle changes in Fredo's body. Whether it is his tail moving a different direction, his ears changing position, or an alter in his body pattern."
The change in behavior shows the handler that the dog is ready to move forward and work towards the targeted source.
The K-9 wears a correction collar to tell let them know that they are not following the desired outcome. Along with the use of verbal cues and undesirable noises a handler is able to train his or her dog.
Today, there are approximately 300 certified dogs and handlers in the U.S. Navy. All dogs are considered petty officers in the U.S. Navy. When the handler advances a rank, the dog advances one rank higher because handlers are taught to respect their dogs.
Handlers will not have the same dog throughout his or her career, but each bond that is made is one of a kind.
"After spending day after day with your dog, you form a special relationship that is unbreakable," Bearden said. "We can't bring our dogs with us when we retire or move to a different base. When a dog receives a new handler, it takes a while for them to learn each other and become a team. I remember each of the dogs I have worked with, and will never forget them."
Military Working Dog teams form unique bond
By Hannah Simmons