Dog days are not over for adopted MWD

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Sondra Escutia
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
From an outside perspective, Bill is your typical dog.

His favorite past times include playing fetch, wrestling with his canine companions, and lounging under a hot New Mexico sun at his home just south of Holloman.

While not apparent to an onlooker, however, the eight-year-old German shepherd -- formerly known as Military Working Dog Bill J149 -- is not your typical dog.

Bill is a highly-trained detector dog, certified in patrol work, a veteran of two overseas deployments, and as of recently, a retired Air Force canine living out his dog days in relaxation with his adoptive owners, Lt. Col. Jeff Krienke, 49th Wing Safety chief, and his wife, Debbie.

Underneath the coat

Today, hundreds of Department of Defense military working dogs are deployed worldwide, working next to their human counterparts and providing critical services: explosive and narcotic detection, security and patrol, deterrence and much more.

Although the concept of employing "man's best friend" has been around for centuries, the canine's natural talents and keen senses may have never been more in-demand than after Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's very common for the dogs to deploy frequently," said Tech. Sgt. Thomas Henzl, 49th SFS Kennel Master. "Post 9/11, it's almost a rotating door for our working dogs. They are in very high demand because the dogs are needed with every branch of service."

Sergeant Henzl, who's been the Holloman Kennel Master for two years, said he's seen dogs return from a deployment and have to go out the door again six months later -- numbers comparable to the high operations tempo faced by many servicemembers today.

"They are there with us every time we deploy ... everywhere we go, they go too," he said.

Unlike their human counterparts though, it is not necessarily "work" in the dog's eyes.

"The dogs have such an eagerness to please and what we call work is actually playtime for the dogs," he explained.

MWD Bill J149 was one of many working dogs that possess a vital ability when it comes to these deployments, which he demonstrated in Southwest Asia in 2008 and in Afghanistan in 2009 -- the ability to detect explosives. His records show four real-world finds.

"They are definitely invaluable to the Airmen, the Soldiers and the Sailors that the working dogs are helping to protect down range with every [improvised explosive device] they find," said Sergeant Henzl.

Looking at Bill today, an easygoing dog who's no happier than when he's playing tug-of-war, it's hard to tell he has saved lives, and by the standards of military members serving down range, that makes him a hero.

"He deserves to live a comfortable life because of what he's done," said Colonel Krienke as he sat in his living room, petting Bill's ears. "He did his job. I don't know all that he's done but I know he's deployed at least twice and he deserves [all that] he gets at our home."

As Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, stated in February 2008, "The capability they (MWD) bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine. By all measures of performance their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory."

From working dog to house dog

Like all military working dogs, Bill's military career began at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where the 341st Training Squadron trains MWDs, handlers, trainers and kennel masters for the Department of Defense and other government agencies.

There, Bill passed extensive evaluations to ensure he was MWD material and his training began. Likewise, when his career ended nearly eight years later due to a medical condition with his spine and hips, he was thoroughly evaluated on his candidacy for adoption.

"There are several factors that play into [their candidacy for adoption], the first being the dog's temperament -- how aggressive the dog is -- and of course, their medical conditions, quality of life ... all of these are taken into consideration," said Sergeant Henzl.

When working dogs are retired for medical reasons, they are carefully screened for their potential to be adopted as pets or transferred to other government law enforcement agencies, according to the 341st TRS website.

These evaluations, performed at base-level and by behaviorists at the 341st TRS, concluded that, due to his medical condition and disposition, he was not able to continue working, but was a good candidate for adoption, said Sergeant Henzl.

"We were lucky enough that he had a demeanor that made him a good candidate for adoption and we were able to find a suitable home for him and now he's living out the rest of the days living the good life," said Sergeant Henzl. "It's a great feeling."

Sergeant Henzl said that, in his working days, Bill was very "push button," very eager to please and very obedient.

These attributes are counted among the benefits of adopting a working dog, along with their intellect, he added, but those willing to adopt need to be aware of the challenges as well.

"It sometimes takes extra effort to adopt a military working dog especially if they are retired for medical reasons. There are substantial medical cost and care that must be provided to the dog that are factored in," said Sergeant Henzl.

Another challenge comes with the training the dogs receive that makes them so essential to military operations.

"The dogs were trained, often for patrol work, and can potentially demonstrate what is called spontaneous recovery where, just out of nowhere, the dogs have an experience or see something that will make them revert to previous training," he said. "The person that adopts them must be aware of this and know steps to prevent this potential behavior."

The Krienkes said they were made aware of the possible challenges going into the adoption process, where they too were extensively evaluated on their ability to care for Bill.

Ms. Krienke joked when she said their biggest challenge thus far has been one of the biggest benefits -- his smarts.

"I fed him a treat before I left because we essentially bribed him yesterday. I was gone for two hours," she recalled. "[My husband] comes home and finds the bag of treats two-thirds of the way empty on the floor."

"He opened the cabinet," added Colonel Krienke with a grin.

Old dog, new tricks

The first week of having Bill at home was rough, said Colonel Krienke. Not for Bill, but for their other two rescued dogs.

"It was easy for him," he said. "He's been trained to ignore distractions, like when his best friend used to bite him whenever he got close. That took three or four days for him to finally get used to him, and now they are best friends."

Now, at any random time, the nearly 90-pound dog can be found playing with Spotty, his 23-pound "adoptive sister." Bill's massive muzzle fits perfectly around Spotty's body and one bite by Bill could be fatal, but watching them play, Bill seems careful -- like he knows his power.

"He's very intimating, but he's so mellow," said Ms. Krienke.

Seeing him wrestle with the other dogs is a positive sign, said Colonel Krienke who, along with Ms. Krienke, have been encouraging him to explore his independence.

"I think his life has been so structured so we're trying to teach him how to be a dog, let him just play with ease and not to worry so much about humans all the time," he said. "He's figuring it out."

Compared to his first few days, they said they've seen quite an improvement.

"He knew how to get in and out of that doggy door," said Colonel Krienke, pointing to a flap near the door in their home. "But he'd stand there and whine and then go on the floor because someone has always let him go outside or told him to."

Even with all they've managed to provide Bill -- a loving home, endless room to run, toys to play with and food to eat -- Ms. Krienke said it's obvious something is still lacking for Bill and they hope to be able to fulfill his missing need.

"He needs a job to do," she said. "He spent 10 to 12 hours a day with a handler working, so I'm actually going to pursue taking him to senior centers. Those people don't need a dog that's jumping in their face. They just want some company and I think he's the perfect dog for that."

Until then, the Krienkes hope to provide Bill all that he deserves as a pet, a veteran, a hero, but most importantly to them, a member of their family.

"They are our kids. Some people don't like that, but they are our kids." said the lieutenant colonel. "I just want him to be comfortable and to be able to be a dog again, play, chase rabbits and have fun."