It’s no secret that dogs and humans have had a relationship dating back thousands of years. But long before dogs became primarily companion animals, they had important jobs. Today, working dogs continue to serve in vital roles that are essential to the safety of their communities. Despite being tremendously useful to the military, law enforcement and search and rescue teams, working dogs are often unsung heroes.
Military working dogs serve tours of duty just like service members and typically work from the age of 2 until they are 8 or 9 years old. These dogs share all the hardships, dangers, trials and tribulations their human handlers face, including injury and the ultimate sacrifice.
Currently, Joint Base Charleston has nine military working dogs on station including German shepherds, Dutch shepherds and Belgian Malinois. These breeds have a high drive and a very good sense of smell, making them ideal for the job.
Their daily functions and duties include providing explosive and narcotics detection to ensure the safety and security of the base. The dogs also serve as a physical and psychological deterrence to potential threats. The military working dogs at Joint Base Charleston are meticulously trained and certified for controlled aggression, or “attack work.”
“For the first time in more than five years, we didn’t receive any deployment taskings this year,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Timothy Garrett, the military working dog section kennel master with the 628th Security Forces Squadron at Joint Base Charleston. “However, our military working dog teams support many local agencies for K-9 mutual aid and support requests.”
Military working dogs complete a 90- to 120-day training course at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas, where they learn basic obedience and get certified in their specialties. The base is home to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog program and the world’s largest training center for military dogs and handlers. The site also houses the largest veterinary hospital for military working dogs. Joint Base San Antonio trains all working dogs for every branch of the armed forces.
While each dog receives the same patrol training, not all receive the same detection training. Puppies that enjoy biting on balls, rags and “bite sleeves” tend to make good patrol dogs, so they are tasked with security. Those that prefer to use their nose over their teeth will most likely excel at detection work. Each dog that is trained in detection specializes in either narcotics or explosives, not both.
Despite advances in security technology, the canine and its unique abilities remain a valued resource.
“They are irreplaceable assets for the Department of Defense,” Garrett said.
Since these working dogs are so valuable, local law enforcement agencies use some of the same breeds in similar roles to the armed forces.
Cpl. Naz Yangco of the Summerville Police Department has worked as a K-9 handler for nearly six years. After completing an extensive four-week training program, he was partnered with Ryu, a German shepherd imported from the Czech Republic and certified in narcotics detection.
Ryu is one of five dual-purpose working dogs at the Summerville Police Department. Chase, a Belgian Malinois, along with German shepherds Rexo and Apart, are certified and assigned to work in patrol. Another German shepherd, Josie, also works in narcotics detection, but is assigned to the local schools.
“Dogs in general are intelligent, but the bond and training that the handlers give K-9s make them extraordinary,” Yangco said. “A single K-9 can complete a task quicker than it would take several officers, (and) in many cases, safer, without placing any officers in danger.”
Members of the Summerville Police Department K-9 Unit train together weekly, every Tuesday, with units from other police and sheriff’s departments in the tri-county area. These units train for a minimum of eight hours each week, or 32 hours each month. Like their human counterparts, working dogs learn to complete tasks and behavior by repetition. In addition to simulating various scenarios so the teams know how to handle them while on duty, much of the training is intended to build trust.
“As a handler, I have to be patient in order to gain and maintain Ryu’s trust,” Yangco said. “But our bond is like no other. It’s humbling to know that he would place himself in harm’s way to protect me.”
For his own protection, Ryu is outfitted with a lightweight, state-of-the-art bulletproof vest that was donated by a Utah-based group. Each handler’s vehicle is equipped with steel window screens, rubber floor mats and special aluminum inserts to protect the dogs, the vehicle and passersby. To prepare for extreme temperatures, the Summerville Police Department installed cooling alarm systems in K-9 unit vehicles. If the temperature gets too hot, a horn sounds, the windows automatically lower and an industrial fan mounted in the window turns on.
The Charleston Police Department K-9 Unit has both dual-purpose and single-purpose working dogs. Also a mix of German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, the unit’s four dual-purpose canines have a range of duties that include tracking fleeing criminals and missing or lost individuals, searching for evidence and locating narcotics.
The single-purpose, explosive ordinance disposal canines work with the Charleston Police Department Bomb Squad to find weapons, search for spent shell cases and seek out explosives.
“The length of a career is different for each canine,” said Sgt. Jeffrey Thom, the Charleston Police Department’s K-9 supervisor. “Typically, we start to look closely at each dog once they reach age 7 and continuously assess their health and workability.”
In most cases, at the end of their careers both military and police working dogs are adopted to live comfortably as a house dog by the handler who worked with them last. After a dedicated career of service, it’s the least these four-legged heroes deserve.