HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
A small figure drifts down a dimly lit hallway. Its silhouette a murky shadow against a white background.
The sound of its feet are a faint drum against the hall’s linoleum flooring, and it breathes in soft pants.
Its pointed nose sweeps low to the ground, and its ears are perked high—listening… In search of what lurks beyond the shadows.
In a flash, a broad man leaps from the darkness.
The dog charges forward and pounces, latching onto his arm with a vise-tight grip.
Doesn’t sound like an average day, but this specialized patrol simulation is just one of the many routines that military working dogs at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. engage in.
To become an MWD, a dog must undergo a certification process that encompasses a diverse training course. This training course covers such skills sets as basic obedience and aggression, explosive or narcotics detection, and patrol work. The MWDs are selected for service between the ages of one and a half and four years, from European breeders or Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
“In order to become qualified or certified as a working dog, [each dog] starts their life at Lackland AFB where they go through dog training school,” said Senior Airman David, a MWD handler with the 49th Security Forces Squadron. “There, they learn the basics on how to do their job, as far as detection and patrol work. They will go through testing, and then they will get certified as a dog.”
From there, the dogs ship out to their respective bases.
“Once they get to their base, they will be assigned to a handler,” David said. “The handler and the dog will work together as a dog team for about 60 days. In that 60 days, the handler will work on the dog’s detection, and will go into a little bit more detail about how to work the dog and how the dog works specific to that base. They will also do patrol training, where they will work on their bite work and their searching. Once they are trained with the handler, they will get validated.”
Validation is a test that determines whether or not a dog is proficient in their skill sets and if they can accurately perform their job. Certification comes from the search grant authority of a base. In Holloman’s case, this would be the Mission Support Group commander.
“The whole process takes less than about six months, from the time they [arrive at] Lackland AFB, to the time that they are certified as a dog team with a handler,” David said. “It’s a pretty quick process.”
Though Holloman’s MWDs are not permitted to play with one another, each dog is granted a routine dose of “play time” with their handler, to relieve any stress or anxiety they may experience. This also helps the dogs to work on basic obedience and training.
“The dogs do not ever get to interact with each other,” David said. “We do not let them socialize with each other or with other dogs as far as base populace goes. The reason for that is because they may end up fighting. Because they are trained in patrol work and in aggression, they are trained to protect themselves. We do not want to take the chance of them fighting out here in the yard or in our kennels.”
Though the dogs are not allowed to play with other dogs or people, they do not miss out on play time.
“They get plenty of time to play with their handlers, we play with them every day,” David said. “It’s up to the handler how much play time they get, whether it be 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, whatever it might be for that day.”
However, to play hard the dogs must also work hard.
“We’re required to do a minimum of one hour of obedience every day, and we like to make the obedience fun,” David said. “We throw their toy around, we run around with them, we pet them. The obedience we do is sit, down, stay, heel and out. But, we will do that as a bare minimum, and we will work on different things that are more complex. So, if we want the dog to sit at one end of our yard, we will have them sit, then we will tell them to stay, then we will walk to the other end of our yard, and then we will give commands from there, whether it be down, sit or heel. So, though we do very few actual commands, we can make them a little more complicated, make them a little more fun.”
Training an MWD can be a rewarding process for a handler.
“The best part of this job is taking a dog that has issues, working with them, and then seeing that ‘lightbulb’ click on--seeing them get and understand something--and having them perform the way in which you want or need them to perform,” said Staff Sgt. Krystle, a military working dog handler with the 49th SFS.
Holloman’s MWDs may appear strong as steel, but they struggle with health and medical related issues like any other domesticated animal. To combat illness, the dogs routinely attend dental and medical checkups.
“We have four dogs who are facing medical challenges,” David said. “Two of them have cancer, and one has a bad knee that is going to need surgery. So, medical issues are a huge [concern] with working dogs, especially with how active the dogs are, how much physical activity they have to do, and how much demand they actually have in their everyday lives. We have a vet on station who sees [the dogs] whenever we need them--24/7, 365. So, care is never an issue. It’s just that as they age they have the normal issues that every dog is going to have.”
The relationship between an MWD and their handler is unique, and specific to every handler and dog.
“Personally, I look at my dog as a partner at work,” David said. “He stays here at the kennels overnight. This is where he lives. I come to work. I pick him up. We get in our patrol car; we do our job. We come back, and we relax for the day. [I] let him have some fun and play around. Then, I go home. I would trust my dog with my life, and I would hope that he would trust me with his. I don’t see him as a pet. He’s a great dog, he works really well and I trust him.”
Holloman’s MWDs exemplify the Air Force’s core value of service before self.
“What makes these dogs special is that they do not get paid to do this,” Krystle said. “They do it because we ask them to. They do not get a paycheck, they do not get leave. They do not ask for anything in return.”
Being an MWD handler is a calling that requires patience and resourcefulness. Security forces K-9 units, no matter their station, are a vital asset to the Air Force and the Department of Defense.
“I find this job to be very rewarding, depending on what we do in a day,” David said. “If I come in and the dog is having a bad day, it is not very rewarding because we get nothing done. Sometimes, we actually backtrack on what we end up doing. But, on a day-to-day, I find it very rewarding because we have opportunities to protect and defend the base or important people, like the president, distinguished visitors or foreign dignitaries.”