Fort Sill joint training goes to dogs
July 7, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Though closed for the summer, a school on post got several extra checks for illegal drugs June 30, part of a day of training shared by military and local law enforcement dog handlers.
Stephens County Sheriff's Department deputies, with their dogs: Argo, Bak and Brando, and Fort Sill military working dog handlers visited Sheridan Road Elementary School to practice drug detection and aggression control.
"This training is huge for our deputies, because anytime we can get with someone else who does this job full-time it enhances our abilities," said John Smith, Stephens County under-sheriff. "There's a lot of illegal drug activity in Oklahoma and in Stephens County, and this training is another tool to help our department meet its commitment to eliminate drugs in the county."
Staff Sgt. Roderick Smith, acting Fort Sill kennel master, and Spc. Christopher Canfield worked with the deputies planting bags of illegal drugs in classrooms then monitoring each deputy and canine team as they conducted a thorough search to find the contraband. Smith said dogs are trained with a favorite toy that they receive as a reward for correct behaviors such as finding the hidden item. The trick is to teach the dog the toy arrives as a result of the dog finding the drug and not something the dog handler obviously tosses to it. He said it's also important to vary the delivery of the toy to keep the dog guessing. Sometimes, such as when they're doing a sweep for drugs through a building, he'll praise his dog and love on it in lieu of the toy to keep the dog searching.
As each of the three teams looked for the hidden drugs, the dogs briskly and eagerly moved through each classroom, nose ever pressed to each surface it encountered no doubt inhaling the veritable "smellgasbord" of olfactory delights only a canine could appreciate. B.A. Beene, deputy sheriff, and his dog, Argo, snuffed their way through the scenario, and the dog sat down beside a plastic container underneath which a bag of drugs lay.
"This training reminded me of the value of training on a leash. Argo is much easier to control this way, and I can show him where I want him to search," said Beene.
Deputy sheriff Mark McClung said Stephens County got its dogs from the Air Force, through a program that donates dogs to law enforcement agencies. These dogs either don't measure up to military requirements or don't get the needed daily training to keep them proficient for their duties. Once they leave the military, they enter a completely different environment, especially off duty. David Martin, deputy sheriff, said his dog,
Bak, sleeps in his bedroom, a dark haven the two escape to after working the night shift. He said he had to teach his dog to sleep during the day so it would be fresh for duty at night.
Like a shadow clinging to his side, McClung's dog, Brando, is a jet black German shepherd. To see the two work together suggests there's more of a bond then just two co-workers working their particular beat.
"Brando is part of my family, when I'm home he runs loose in the backyard, and at night he sleeps at my house," said McClung, who has trained police dogs for more than 30 years.
Whether on- or off-duty, McClung maintains absolute control over it. He said this is necessary, because if the dog bites someone and the department gets sued, they have to be able to prove proper control of their dogs and detailed documentation of its training. Because of the increased interaction with the general public, the deputies said it's rare the dogs bite and generally are well behaved around people.
McClung likened working with Brando to being around a 6-year-old child. After the dog finds a bag of drugs, he's always praising Brando with words of encouragement, and often hugging or stroking the dog's luxuriant fur.
It's that bond, however, that may be the one drawback to working with a police dog. When that time comes that a dog can no longer work, parting ways can be difficult. Looking down briefly and getting that faraway look in his eyes perhaps from a memory, McClung asked, "Have you ever lost a family member? Losing a dog is the same thing, it's horrible.
"Actually it's worse than that, because the dog is still alive, and someone else has it," he said. "I can't have two dogs so in a way it's like divorce: you still love them, but you can't see them."
But, while they remain together the duo are effective in all aspects of their police work to include searches, patrol work and aggression control. Canfield and Martin each transformed into a big green comic book character in the bulky (and hot!) bite suit, to give the dogs a target to subdue.
"Lots of dogs know how to bite and how to defend themselves, but it's a different concept to teach them to bite on command," said Sergeant Smith.
As each handler held his dog on leash, the person in the bite suit would wave his arms, swing a whip or shout to excite the dog. Flight, the first practiced movement drew from a dog's instinct to chase prey. Released by the handler, the dog quickly closed the gap and clamped down on a heavily padded arm. Deputy Smith said once the fleeing person submits, the handler calls the dog off. Sometimes the training reminds the handlers that dogs can be like kids who get into the moment, are having fun and don't want to let go.
"That's something we work hard to train out of them, and that just reinforces the value of training with our military counterparts," he said.
Teams also practiced scenarios that called for the person to aggressively attack the dog and put pressure on it. In this situation the dog bites to protect itself and its handler.
Police dogs also train on search and recovery of missing people, such as someone lost on the wildlife refuge. Sergeant Smith said that duty is impossible with military dogs, because the dogs are trained to bite and wouldn't discern the difference between a lost person or one hiding to avoid capture.
He added training days like this maintain working relationships and are especially necessary in his speciality: Smith is an explosives dog handler and may respond to requests for explosives trained dogs for situations in Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma and northern Texas.
With the heat of the day turning the gym into a sauna, the dog handlers ended their joint session.
"This training is so valuable for our deputies, because we get to share things that work with our dogs and learn from each other," said Deputy Smith. "Training needs to be realistic to be effective, and working in this building today was great for our dogs and their handlers."