Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four articles on the Security Forces Squadron mission here at Ellsworth.
ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. – Man’s best friend – a saying that holds true in the home as well as the battlefield.
For a lap dog, life seems simple. They eat, play and sleep. While some aspects may be similar, the life of a military working dog is a whole different breed of excitement.
“Our main mission is explosive detection,” said Staff Sgt. Ralph Rodriguez, a military working dog trainer assigned to the 28th Security Forces Squadron. “Dogs have a capability that neither human nor machine can do, detecting explosives where they’re buried or well hidden. A dog’s sense of smell is much higher than any humans.”
According to Rodriguez, these K9’s begin their career very early in life -- around the one and a half year mark. However, in order to begin their careers as military working dogs, they have to go through their own basic military training just like Airmen.
“[At Lackland Air Force base] they go through and learn all their basic training,” said Staff Sgt. Kelly Peterson, a MWD trainer assigned to the 28th SFS. “They learn their basic obedience, which is anything from sit, heel or stay down, and all of the basic core tasks, which are the foundation that leads into the rest of their training.”
The K9’s go into detection based training where they are taught to identify different odors, such as certain drugs and explosives. From there, they receive patrol based training where they learn to attack aggressors using techniques such as bite, hold and chase.
“It takes a while for them to get assigned and shipped out to their base,” Rodriguez said. “Once they get to base, they go to work.”
Upon arrival to a duty station, the MWD’s are assigned to a handler who will continue to train and build upon the skills learned at Lackland AFB.
“Some dogs have stronger points and some have weaker points,” Peterson said. “So we try to fix any issues that a dog may be weak on and then build their strengths as they progress their careers in the military.”
According to the handlers, they practice real-life situations training in buildings on base, roadways, vehicle searches and many other environments to prepare them for anything they might run into while working.
“There are two types of dogs,” Rodriguez stated. “They are usually trained on explosives or narcotics, never both.”
He further explained that having a dog trained on both would be confusing for the handlers.
“If they were trained on both, [the MWD’s] would sit if they found a bomb or drugs – you wouldn’t know which,” Rodriguez continued. “You’re not going to open a drawer if there’s a bomb inside, but with drugs you would. So that’s why we keep the tasks separated to certain dogs.”
According to the handlers, MWD’s act as an essential part of a team in the field. They are used in every group that goes “outside the wire,” whether it be U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Navy Seals or Special Forces.
The canine will complete these tasks dutifully until they no longer can, whether by age or falling in the line of duty.
“A dog can be retired in two ways,” Kelly said. “Either they fulfill their time, which for the Air Force if they are working and healthy is nine to ten years old, or they can be retired medically, meaning they have a medical issue and can no longer fulfill their military duty.”
Whether finishing their tour of duty by time in service or otherwise, the MWD’s are given the full respect and honor as any other individual who has served their country.
“When a dog retires they will have a full retirement ceremony,” Rodriguez said. “However, if they pass away we will have a memorial for them in memory of their entire service. At the end of it [the ceremony], everyone in the unit can pay their respects for the fallen defender.”