Even in a changing military environment, opportunities for Military Working Dogs in the Services, and elsewhere in the States, continue to grow. Robert Moorman explores the training and deployment of these olfactory wonders.

With a sense of smell that is reportedly a thousand times more sensitive than humans, it is not surprising that forces worldwide employ Military Working Dogs (MWDs) for patrol, drug, explosive and enemy detection. The nose knows.

MWDs are an integral part of maintaining security and protecting their two-legged partners. K9 handlers and other service personnel view these remarkable animals as fellow warriors, loyal comrades to be respected and honored.

In the US, most of the training of MWDs and their K9 handlers takes place at the 341st Training Squadron’s MWD Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, near the city of San Antonio in south-central Texas.

With an annual budget of around $6 million to cover purchasing, training and personnel costs, the 341st supports the MWD needs of all branches of the military as well as Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It shares a joint campus with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a unit of DHS which is responsible for airport security.

In 2017, the squadron study stated that each dog sent to an operational unit cost approximately $42,000. The cost of training one MWD is around $20,000. Multipurpose dogs, mine dogs, combat tracker dogs and others have different price points.

A fully trained and experienced MWD is worth over $150,000, according to retired Air Force K9 handler Louis Robinson, who now runs Robinson Dog Training in Phoenix, Arizona. Robinson’s dog training program for the civil sector is based upon proven techniques developed by the US government for its canine (K9) warriors.

German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the preferred type for military use, while the TSA uses mostly German Short Hair Pointers, German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Belgian Malinois. As of late 2017, there were roughly 1,600 MWDs in the field or being used for training or as sentries at military bases.

The Lackland campus kennels can house around 1,100 dogs. All purchasing of dogs comes through the 341st Squadron. “We’re purchasing and training a lot of dogs per year,” said USAF Major Matthew Kowalski, Commander of the 341st Training Squadron. “We’re like Costco” (a wholesale store), he joked.

The training center’s goal for 2018 is 291 fully trained dogs for patrol, drug and explosive detection duties. For 2019, the goal is 341 fully trained dogs. Part of the need for more dogs is to replace those that were used in Afghanistan and elsewhere worldwide that are nearing retirement.

The use of MWDs surged during World War II when up to 10,000 K9s were enlisted. Another surge came after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to DoD information.

Lackland has its own breeding program for Belgian Malinois with 49 dogs in the program presently. Some dogs are purchased from American breeders. But the numbers are still far below what is needed to meet the various mission requirements.

“Next year, we need to enter over 400 dogs to account for training washouts, medical eliminations or holdovers to meet our requirement [for 341] fully trained dogs,” said Kowalski. “And the US market for dual-purpose working dogs just can’t support that at this time. Which is why we go to Europe.”

Reports vary, but as of now over 75% of MWDs used by the US military are acquired from Germany and The Netherlands.

From birth to eight weeks, future military working dogs bred at the 341st Training Squadron are reared at the Military Working Dog Center. At eight weeks, pups are housed with foster parents in the San Antonio area for seven months of rearing and socialization. The short-term homes allow the dogs to be exposed to different environments and people before they’re returned to the training center for pre-training. At the age of one year, trainers determine if the canines are suitable to become MWDs.

Marine Corps Sgt. Joseph Adams shouts commands at Gunner as they swim at Camp Lejeune. Image credit: Cpl. Austyn Saylor/Marine Corps.
Marine Corps Sgt. Joseph Adams shouts commands at Gunner as they swim at Camp Lejeune. Image credit: Cpl. Austyn Saylor/Marine Corps.

Dual-Track Curriculum

The training methodology for MWDs and their handlers at Lackland has changed. Years ago, a novice K9 handler and dog were paired on day one and remained together throughout all phases of training and the dog’s career, which can be eight or nine years.

Now, dogs are trained on a separate track initially. Some dogs at the center are used exclusive as trainers, while others are assigned to handlers following initial training and remain together from then on.

The curriculum for MWDs and their handlers includes five modules. The MWD basic course takes six months approximately. There is also an 11-week basic foundation handler course; handlers are picked from the ranks of military law enforcement.

In addition, there’re two Marine-specific courses: a specialized search-dog course and one for combat tracking. Handlers are paired with their dogs throughout both courses. Finally, there is a seven-day advanced trainer and kennel master course for all military branches.

A permanent dog is allocated to the handler once the handler is assigned to their duty station.

For doing a good job at detection, the MWD during training is ‘paid’ with a rubber toy Kong, not food, as some pet owners might expect.

“The Kong is like a paycheck for the dog,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Otten, an experienced K9 handler, now a trainer of MWDs and handlers with the 341st.

In his career, Otten has partnered with three German Shepherd MWDs: “Falco,” “Rando” and “Ringo.” He adopted Falco upon the canine’s retirement. Unfortunately, Falco was later euthanized because of severe hip dysplasia, a genetic condition for which German Shepherds are prone.

All K9 handlers have favorite stories that extol the courage and life-saving talents of their four-legged partners. One of Otten’s stories surrounds a case involving local and federal law enforcement near a military base in New Mexico. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had raided a house in the area, which was thought to contain explosives. Otten and Rando were dispatched to the site to sweep the house. The dog’s nose went into high gear almost immediately. Near the garage, Rando began exhibiting behavior that he’d picked up the scent of something. Moments later, he promptly sat, the signal to “look here.”

“Knowing the dog, and the trust I placed in him, I knew he found something,” recalled Otten.

Upon closer examination, investigators found several canisters of explosive black powder. The home’s resident, a convicted felon, was charged with possession of an explosive substance.

Kowalski has heard numerous stories from the handlers under his command about the value of MWDs. In fact, in college he told the recruiter he wanted to be a K9 handler with the military police. Unfortunately, officers can’t be handlers. Said a resigned Kowalski: “This is the closest I can get to having my hand on the leash.”

But he can take the initiative in improving the facility. In addition to upping the procurement and training of MWDs, he would like to enhance the campus infrastructure. Among Kowalski’s goals are to update the Lt. Col. Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital, part of the Army Public Health Center, which is responsible for veterinary care for all MWDs. Opened in 2008, the MWD hospital is starting to show its age, said Kowalski.

Some improvements to the hospital have happened already. In late June 2018, the new Sports Medicine Rehabilitation Facility opened. The facility employs 14 veterinarians, 12 technicians, and six non-medical support personnel, as well as contract dog handlers.

Rescue a Retiree

Retired or rejected MWDs can be adopted. Prior dog handlers and civilian law enforcement agencies get priority on adoption, followed by the general public. The dog’s last handlers adopt most dogs.

Adopting former MWDs has faced intense scrutiny in recent years by animal rights groups and a 2018 Pentagon Inspector General’s (IG) report that criticized the US Army and Air Force for inadequate oversight in the adoption process. In particular, the IG noted that not all dogs were suitably matched with the foster parents. Both branches agreed to improve their screening and adoption procedures.

Lackland has an adoption coordinator, who considers numerous applications carefully. Being a dog lover alone is not a green light to adoption. And those wanting a specific kind of dog with few problems are likely not to be selected.

Know what you’re getting in a retired MWD. “Some of the misperception is that these dogs will make great family pets right out of the cage,” said Kowalski candidly. Many dogs have been traumatized in war zones or injured. It will take a special family or individual “who can give the dogs time to work through these medical and psychological issues,” he added.

Those who become foster parents must agree in writing to provide all future medical, shelter and food costs for the animal. Sometimes the costs in time and money are significant.

Take the case of one adoptee’s story. Kenneth Gardner, a retired US Marine and resident of Alexandria, Virginia years ago adopted Blek, a former MWD, who was rejected by his first adoptees. Trained in Texas initially by a commercial kennel not affiliated with Lackland, and later schooled in The Netherlands, the German Shepherd had “a lot of wear on him” after serving seven arduous years in Iraq detecting explosives, remembered Gardner.

The dog was an immediate challenge for the new parent. Some of the K9’s traits were at first off-putting. Not only would Blek clear any facility daily – as he was trained to do – and refuse to let anyone in the Gardner house until they and their possessions were searched thoroughly – he would answer only to commands in Dutch. Luckily, Gardner had received a card with basic instructions in the West Germanic language when he picked Blek up at Dulles International Airport.

The dog’s health was concerning too. Eighteen rotten teeth were pulled not long after adoption and his gums required surgery. Yet Gardner’s patience and belief that Blek could have a life after war paid off eventually. When the dog recovered from his teeth extraction, “we bonded like you wouldn’t believe,” said Gardner, who slept with him while the animal convalesced.

Blek and Gardner would enjoy “three magical years of constant companionship,” during which they would travel the country. On occasion, the duo would entertain audiences at a library or school. In the third year, Blek was diagnosed with four ruptured disks, and eventually lost the use of his back legs and was euthanized.

“I think about him a lot,” said Gardner.

Ricky, a Belgian Malinois with the US Coast Guard, wears a hoisting vest, eye protection and hearing protection during training. Image credit: Brandyn Hill/US Coast Guard.
Ricky, a Belgian Malinois with the US Coast Guard, wears a hoisting vest, eye protection and hearing protection during training. Image credit: Brandyn Hill/US Coast Guard.

From Military Patrols to Presidential Aircraft

While the 341st is the primary source of MWDs, there are other military programs and private sector trainers that provide dogs for law enforcement and personal protection. Robinson Dog Training does not train dogs earmarked for the military. The facility does, however, provide working dogs for private security contractors working for corporations or agencies of the US government as well as for business leaders and famous personalities.

Fort Hood, a US Army post on 339 square miles, also contributes to the MWD corps. Located in Central Texas between Waco and Austin, or, as some locals say, “between Wacko and Weird,” has its own K9 training program.

Fort Hood’s 513th Military Police Department certifies MWDs for the US Army. Dogs and handlers are tested on their proficiency in patrol and detection work. Dogs are tested on their ability to: respond and identify certain odors; obey their handlers commands; reaction to gunfire; and to sniff out personnel or explosives.

Handlers are evaluated on their teamwork with the dog and ability to control the dog off-leash while going through an obstacle course. All dogs and handlers must be certified before they can work for law enforcement, secret service duties and deployments, according to the Army.

The US Marine Corps Air Facility in Quantico, Virginia, home to Helicopter Squadron One (HMX01), which supports the President’s helicopter fleet, use MWDs to patrol the area around the presidential helicopter and inside it. The dogs and handlers also travel ahead of the President to help prepare and maintain security on site.

If Kowalski and the 341st Squadron meet their goals, various branches of the US military will soon employ many more of these four-legged guardians. 

Originally published in Issue 6, 2018 of MS&T Magazine.