Training, deployment strengthen dog-handler team

Staff Sgt. Eric Magnuson, 95th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler, lets Nix take a rest after an exercise. The bond between handler and dog is crucial for training and eventually, deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

Staff Sgt. Eric Magnuson, 95th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler, lets Nix take a rest after an exercise. The bond between handler and dog is crucial for training and eventually, deployment. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

Staff Sgt. Eric Magnuson, 95th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler, talks to Nix as part of their bonding. The bond between handler and dog is crucial for training and eventually, deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

Staff Sgt. Eric Magnuson, 95th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler, talks to Nix as part of their bonding. The bond between handler and dog is crucial for training and eventually, deployment. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

Staff Sgt. Eric Magnuson, 95th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler, lets Nix out for an exercise. While on Edwards, the K-9s and their handlers work together to train and learn detection missions, such as searching for bombs and narcotics. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

Staff Sgt. Eric Magnuson, 95th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler, lets Nix out for an exercise. While on Edwards, the K-9s and their handlers work together to train and learn detection missions, such as searching for bombs and narcotics. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Julius Delos Reyes)

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- The sound of rustling leaves weaved through the voice of a master giving commands to his dog. Though the voice was nearly overcome by the sound, the dog's ears were still attuned to his master's every word. 

"Sit," said Senior Airman Jacob Allen, 95th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler. 

Gas sat. 

"Good boy," Airman Allen said in a gibberish-sounding, high-pitched and almost indecipherable manner. This he did while petting Gas' dark fur as a distinct way of praising his military working dog. 

The next command had Airman Allen leaving Gas 50 feet away with no command other than, "Stay!" What seemed to be an easy task is actually difficult because it tests the dog's concentration and obedience. 

"It is a hard feat because the dog's comfort zone is near his handler," said Master Sgt. Jon Camplin, 95th SFS Military Working Dog Kennel master. 

But they need to test the bond between handler and dog because it is crucial for training and eventually, deployment. 

Bond at first sight 

Pairing handlers with their dogs constitutes teaming them according to their contrasting or similar personalities and experience. As the youngest and the newest Airman in the MWD unit, Airman Allen is the yin to Gas' yang. 

"If you have a brand new handler who just graduated from K-9 school, you don't want to team him up with a brand new dog, because they are going to be inexperienced," Sergeant Camplin said. "If you have a brand new handler, you want to team him up with a dog that has been doing it for quite a while so that the dog can actually teach the handler his job." 

Alpha-male dogs are usually teamed with handlers who are more seasoned, while K-9s that are active are paired with Airmen who are also dynamic, but the bonds can be better observed as days progress. The first few days or weeks is vital to the development of the bond between man and dog. 

"We usually keep our K-9s in their kennels for about two weeks, maybe longer, up to a point where they get anxious to get out," he said. "When we bring the new handler in, the new handler will usually set a chair outside the K-9's kennel, sit and talk to him, and sometimes, hand them treats." 

Some have even resorted to reading magazines to their dogs. 

After a day or so, the newly-formed master-and-dog team goes for a rapport walk, where the handlers don't give the dogs any command. They just take them out for a nice, friendly walk. 

"That solidifies the bond between the dog and the handler," the kennel master said. "From there, they will become friends." 

For Airman Allen, he took Gas for a walk and got to know the K-9. He learned the dog's reactions for certain things, such as how he responds to being petted. 

"He is really a good dog," Airman Allen said. "He is easy to get along with." 

Mission is to bark, fight and win 

"Reinforce your stay!" shouted Sergeant Camplin to Airman Allen. 

Gas had just missed a stand-off command. The K-9 walked to the "stranger" when he was supposed to be at a stay position. The duo did it again with a success. 

Airmen with the MWD unit receive their training from a 13-week Basic Handler's Course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Kennel masters meanwhile receive a four-week long supervisor's course. As for the K-9s, they are trained at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School -- their basic military training equivalent where they undergo 50 days of detection training and another 50 days for patrol work. 

Once a year, the kennel master has to recertify the handler-dog team for detection and patrol. Just like their Security Forces brethren, they also need to be fit to fight in preparation for their deployment in support of Overseas Contingency Operation. 

"To get these dogs combat-ready, we have an intense physical training program for the handlers and the dogs," said Tech. Sgt. John Ricci, Military Working Dog handler and kennel trainer. "It builds their endurance in detection, enabling them to search long periods of time, especially in deployed locations." 

This program readies the dog-handler team for harsh conditions, like desert terrain. It includes a lot of running in thick sands, a terrain similar to where they'll be deployed. They also traverse an obstacle course to practice their jumps and crawls. 

"Everything we do is related to being combat ready," Sergeant Ricci said. 

According to Sergeant Camplin, when dogs get worn out, they also make mistakes "just like people." 

"We can't have the dogs making mistakes," he said. "They have to have a strict PT program to keep their endurance up to perform their mission." 

The unit's mission is to support law enforcement operations on base, providing K-9 support for specific instances such as bomb threats and deterrence. The military working dogs also do walking patrols in high traffic areas. 

"As the public sees us, it deters criminals from trying anything, knowing that we have a strong MWD presence on the base," Sergeant Camplin said. "We are also responsible for supporting secret service for the U.S. president, vice president and the first lady." 

While on Edwards, the K-9s and their handlers work together to train and learn detection missions, such as searching for bombs and narcotics. Oftentimes, the handler-dog team gets six months on station and six months deployed. Some dogs even get to deploy more than their handlers. 

Wingman, leader, warrior 

Being a dog handler entails a lot of work. Aside from taking care of themselves, they also need to take care of their K-9s. The dogs rely on them for food, grooming and health checks. 

Military working dog handlers have daily checklists they need to accomplish as well as an itemized medical chart for their sick teammates. 

"We also have to keep everything immaculately clean," said Sergeant Camplin. "This includes the kitchen and the entire kennel. No food droppings should be left behind because they attract critters such as ants, mice and spiders that could affect the dogs." 

However, the things they do for their K-9s also build rapport. 

"The dog knows you are there to take care of him," Sergeant Ricci said. "Eventually, that bond will get stronger so the dog is willing to take care of you when you are down the road doing patrol. He's got your back." 

This also means giving up their time for their dogs when they are sick. Once, a 95th SFS K-9 had surgery and was "pretty bad." 

"We took turns sleeping here and staying overnight," Sergeant Ricci said. "We've done it numerous times but it is good that our families back us up." 

But everything is not all work and no play. They also go out and have fun, including playing ball, Frisbee, catch and more. 

'Good boy' 

Sergeant Ricci cringed when he saw Gas couldn't jump at one of the obstacles during the obedience course. Airman Allen was urging Gas to jump but he couldn't, even with extra footing. On one obstacle, Gas jumped but his landing was rough as his hind legs kept hitting the obstacle. 

"He is old," Sergeant Camplin said. 

At 10, Gas is the oldest K-9 in the shop. 

"The motivation is there, but the body is not," Sergeant Camplin said. 

Despite of this, the duo received a "go" for patrol certification. Airman Allen rubbed Gas' tummy and said in his distinct way, "good boy."