Top dogs work to protect Academy lives, mission

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Every day, seven loyal 10th Security Forces Squadron Airmen use their superior senses, instinct, strength and intelligence to keep everyone here out of harm's way.
They train to enhance their skills, deploy, and appreciate a generous petting or rubber toy in return.

Academy military working dogs RRuuk, Bert, Mack, Sato, Jason, Cindy and Graig, patrol alongside their 10th SFS handlers, searching buildings and sniffing-out drugs and explosives to keep cadets, staff and base residents safe around the clock.

"Dogs are not only valuable to the Academy, but to the Defense Department community, because they can bridge the gap between life and death for the handler and the people they protect," said Tech. Sgt. Derek Copeland, the 10th SFS MWD kennel master. "Their sense of smell cannot be beat by any machine and they're always willing to do what is asked of them."

The Academy's MWD staff consists of one kennel master, one trainer, eight handlers, one drug and patrol dog, and six bomb and patrol dogs. It's a 24-hour operation and each canine is assigned to a handler.

"I probably see my dog here more than my German shepherd at home," said Staff Sgt. Justin Bauman, an Academy MWD handler assigned to handle Mack, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois. "On average, I probably spend about 50 hours a week with Mack for training and patrolling."

Military working dog teams here work 10-hour shifts for six days followed by a three day break.

"Handlers shouldn't just strive to meet basic requirements," Bauman said. "They should want excel at a higher level through advanced training, making their dog as sharp as they can be."
Bauman, a handler for almost three years, said MWD handlers need to form a rapport with their canine.

"Every time they come out of their kennel, you want their ears up, tail wagging and ready to do whatever you want them to do because they know you're a pack," he said.
It's important to keep the dogs thinking and not let them anticipate situations, Bauman said.

"Every handler has their own method of training," he said. "At the Academy, the dogs go through classical conditioning, where we change up the area of training so they will be alert and prepared across the installation. The key is to pick an approach and observe what the dog is giving you or not giving you, see if it works and if not, try another method until the dog reacts the way you need it to for the training."

The Academy's K-9 Unit is authorized eight working dogs and has received German shepherds, German shorthaired pointers and Labradors for their teams. Currently, all canines here are Belgian Malinois.

"Belgian Malinois make a good breed for working dogs because they are agile, fast, high in hunt drive, and love to work," Copeland said. "USAFA working dogs are unique because we often get dogs that are highly driven (and it) takes a higher level of training and expertise to manage the dogs."

The Academy receives the dogs from the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, when they're about two years old, Bauman said. He said the puppies go through initial tests and evaluations to determine whether they'll be a good MWD before they begin their 120-day-training-for-certification process.

During this time, the dogs are taught basic commands such as sit, down, heel, a recall command, bite command and detection command, he said.

"It's our job as handlers, trainers and kennel masters to make sure they maintain that certification and then (go) above and beyond that to make them better," Bauman said.

Military working dogs assigned to narcotics are trained to detect five different odors, and bomb dogs search Falcon Stadium before graduation and every football game to make sure it's clear of explosives.

Dogs are assigned to multiple handlers while in the MWD program, Bauman said.

"Just like the dog is learning, we have to continue to grow by working with different dogs," he said. "From my experience, the more dogs you see as a handler, the better you'll become because each dog is different. They perform at different levels."

It can be difficult for handlers not to get emotionally attached to their canines, Bauman said. He said handlers usually get first choice when it comes to adopting a dog after it retires.

"If I'm no longer assigned to Mack, I will understand but it'll be hard because I don't want to see him go to someone else," he said.

Within the last 18 months, three military working dog teams here have deployed, with Academy bomb dogs sometimes providing support for the Secret Service, said Bauman.

"Last year we had a female handler go to India," he said. "That's just another part of our mission."

Military working dogs have been part of the Air Force mission since 1952.

"I love coming to work every day knowing what I do makes a difference, and has a direct impact on the people the dogs protect in a deployed and home-station environment," Copeland said.