JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. , March 13, 2019 —
As the policeman tries to get the rowdy suspects under control, his partner makes his presence known; the suspects know all too well about his super speed, sight, hearing and sense of smell – and the room gets silent.
“The military working dogs (MWD) have a psychological effect on scene,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Carmen Pontello, 633rd Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler. “If someone isn’t acting right, and he or she hears a dog bark, ten times out of ten, that person straightens up.”
According to Pontello, the MWDs are trained to sense any sort of sounds, movements or scents with the potential to harm them. They can see, hear and smell a lot better than a person could and that’s very advantageous.
“They’re watching your back like any human partner would, if not better,” said Pontello. “They don’t have a phone to play on or a book to read – they’re doing nothing but watching your back. When it’s just you two out there, you want the most vigilant thing out there and you can’t always get that from a human.”
Just like the Soldiers and Airmen who handle them here at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, the MWDs go through training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Here they learn skills from basic obedience to controlled aggressiveness, attacking, and building and open area searches.
“A green dog is a dog that’s coming straight out of Lackland, they go to school just like we do then they get assigned to a base,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Noah Medor, 633rd Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler. “It’s an exciting feeling; there’s a lot of emotions because you want to feel the dog out.”
According to Medor, handlers go through a two-week rapport phase in which the dog is taken out on walks in different areas and tested on very basic obedience. It’s a time used solely to get to know each other.
“Rendi loves attention like petting him and playing with him,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Samantha Snyder, 633rd Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler. “I just started with him in January and building rapport like that has made him more obedient and comfortable with me. Every single day the relationship improves, it’s not like one day ‘boom’ you have it. It’s continuous.”
Building rapport brings a mutual knowledge of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Through successive approximation, certain stressors, such as gunfire, are worked through with the MWD. In this situation, the dog is brought into the same environment as its stressor, through distance. By acclimating the dog to the stressor through comfortable distances and bonding, said distance can be shortened to the point of eliminating the stress from that thing or situation.
Handlers also turn to each other for improvement and the Soldiers and Airmen at JBLE get to train together and share their knowledge.
“It’s a huge benefit because the Air Force trains different than the Army and being able to train together whenever we want to gives us a different aspect,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Nathan Stanton, Training and Doctrine Command 3rd Military Police Detachment kennel master. “There’s a hundred ways to train a dog and you may know 20 while the other knows 20, so now you have 40 out the hundred because you get to pull from everybody.”
Stanton’s favorite part of the job is meeting dogs that present difficulty to train. He recounted his experience with a MWD in Hawaii that didn’t like people and only wanted to be around his handler. At first the dog didn’t even want him in his kennel so Stanton just sat outside it reading a magazine to him and get the dog accustomed to his voice. By the end of his time there, he would sit in the kennel and the dog would sit in his lap.
“At the end of the day, the dogs are the biggest asset,” Medor said. “We can be replaced, everybody is always training up their replacement, but these dogs are on a limited time. Their window is a little shorter than ours so we have to get the most that we can out of them.”
But it’s not all work and no play, there are times when they bring their dogs out to play catch in the field, walk around, unwind and let the dog be a dog.
“My dog now, if she starts getting stressed out, I know how to calm her down,” Pontello said. “I’ll just bring her to me, pet her and give her water if she wants water or her toy if that’s what she wants a toy.”
At the end of the day every dog has different personalities, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. It’s through building a bond and getting to know them that the handlers are able to do the job of getting the MWD to do what they need to get done.
“As a kennel master being in charge of all the handlers and NCOs below me,” Stanton said. “You have to figure out how those people operate and how they can be motivated in order to do what you need to get done and it’s the exact same thing with dogs. Some people don’t realize it but sometimes it’s like ‘hey you know what I’m doing to you right now, it’s actually the same thing I do with dog training.’”