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Practice makes perfect

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Whitney Amstutz
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

For a percentage of the working world, the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. are monotonous. For military working dog handlers of the 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron, this could not be further from the truth.

For them, practice today must equal perfection tomorrow.

Air Force MWD handlers are responsible for protecting and defending their installation with their canine counterparts. When having an off-day can risk base security, handlers and their detection dogs train with the mindset that every day is game day.

“We have monthly optimum training records,” said Staff Sgt. Sean Harrington, 27th SOSFS MWD handler. “The requirement is different each month and for each dog. Whether you’re training your dog to find bombs, drugs, or search buildings for people, training is never complete. Your dog could have a perfect detection day, but you’re still not done; you have to make sure those skills don’t diminish.”

Each dog is trained in law enforcement, and specializes in either narcotics or explosives detection; never both.

“It’s important that those specializations remain separate,” Harrington said. “If dogs were trained to detect both narcotics and explosives, the handler would have no idea if they were walking up on a cache of drugs, or an Improvised Explosive Device. That’s a pretty important distinction.”

With life and death on the line, trust between dog and handler is essential.

“When executing our stateside mission we patrol the base and search buildings to ensure everything is on the up-and-up,” Harrington said. “When executing a deployed mission you may be outside the wire performing detection for combat missions. We wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t trust our dogs, and the dogs wouldn’t perform if they didn’t have a rapport with us.”

Deployed twice to the Middle East, Tech. Sgt. Rachel Calloway, 27th SOSFS MWD kennel master, echoed Harrington’s sentiments.

“I deployed for the first time in 2009 and again in 2011,” Calloway said. “During both deployments our primary function was searching vehicles attempting to enter the base for explosives and performing patrols. We take our job seriously whether we’re downrange or stateside, but it’s a different ball game when you’re not on home soil.”

Searching between 300 and 400 vehicles over the course of each 12-hour shift, Calloway and her MWD relied on the work ethic cultivated during training to combat the complacency that sometimes accompanies fatigue and repetition.

“The responsibility keeps you honest,” Calloway said. “The presence of a detection dog at the gate is not only a deterrent, but it makes service members on base feel a lot safer. When people are trusting you with their lives, you must be on top of your game all the time. Knowing what I know about the dog’s abilities, and our abilities as a team, I felt their trust was well placed.”

In an occupation where finding illegal drugs, bad guys and bombs is the goal, Harrington’s greatest challenge might come as a surprise.

“The most difficult part of this job is knowing your dog,” the staff sergeant said. “They have their own personalities, but you have to cultivate their potential and know how to push them. They have to trust you, and respect you enough to be led.”

It’s a common belief among MWD handlers that Air Force K9 is the tip of the defense spear.

“I think K9 is one of the most important jobs we have in the military,” Harrington said. “The dogs’ noses, their detection ability, the deterrence factor, and the lives they save make them second to none.”