By September 12, 2014
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - The APG Directorate of Emergency Services Police Department has three officers who are little-known to most people living or working on post. They don't drive patrol cars, collect salaries, or even walk upright.
But to police officers Lt. Ron Colbeck, Nicholas Vertz, Jeremy Rondone and Anthony Basi these three Military Working Dogs (MWD) are an integral part of day-to-day life at APG.
Blecky, Poker and Viktor, the current MWDs working at APG, were bred and trained as MWDs at the Department of Defense Puppy Program at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
Once individualized training is completed, a dog and handler must become a team and certify together. Both the dogs and their handlers are certified for either narcotics or explosives detection.
"The dogs are dual trained; they do patrol work as well. If you have a suspect who's attacking somebody or attacking an officer they're also trained to handle that," Basi said.
The K-9s will obey any officer, but they are most attentive towards their own handler.
"They might listen, but it's more like going through the motions as opposed to when the dog's handler is there. It'll be crisp and you can tell the dog knows who is who," said Rondone.
All four officers and their MWDs are up for their yearly recertification in two weeks.
"After that we'll start working the road more...checking cars, searching for any explosives. We'll do building searches and respond to calls when a vehicle needs to be searched," Vertz said.
Of course not every dog meets the stringent requirements to become a MWD. The officers note that some breeds, such as German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, are more adequately suited to the job due to their keen intelligence and capacity for obedience.
"Now they're trying to make a hybrid between the two breeds," Colbeck said.
Even with a strong pool of puppy candidates, MWD breeders whittle their search down to the cream of the crop.
"They have a certain form that they look at as far as prey drive and their search behaviors," Rondone said.
Aggression is a good trait, poor health problems in the bloodline are not. And although they are known as pack animals, their socialization with each other is kept to a minimum.
"We don't let them play together because they're all alphas, so they all want to be dominant," Basi said.
"Poker is the smallest one but he's the instigator," added Rondone with a smile.
Handlers develop a discerning eye for their dog's individual health and wellness, providing first-responder care if a dog requires medical attention in an effort to prevent problems before they develop.
"At [the] handler's course we start with the very basics - learning about the dogs, their health, how to take care of them...real basic stuff like looking in the eyes and nose, making sure there's no cuts or bruises on the pads. It's something you learn to do every single day," Rondone said.
The officer's first-responder skills extend beyond simple first aid. Rondone said that training includes performing a tracheotomy if a K-9 gets something lodged in its throat and how to put a needle in its stomach to release pressure when the stomach is twisted.
For handlers, training K-9s is a lifelong process.
"If you go a couple of days without training your dog, the dog starts to forget it. So you have to train your dog every day on the explosives or the narcotics. And each dog is trained for either one or the other. So you have to constantly train them on that one thing and keep them up to par," Vertz said.
The officers noted that spending time with their dogs goes a long way toward keeping them working at their maximum potential.
"We have to build a rapport and a bond with them," said Rondone. "We play with them, take them for runs...it gives them exercise which is good and it also builds that relationship."
For properly executing an exercise or command, the K-9s are rewarded with their favorite toy, such as a rope or a Kong. Kongs are snowman-shaped, rubber toys with hollow inside for treats. Poker in particular enjoys playing with his Kong after running the outdoor obstacle course but treats are off limits.
"The dogs don't usually work for treats," Basi said, "We don't want them gaining weight."
The MWDs follow a strict diet adapted by their off-site veterinarian, Capt. Amanda Jeffries, from Dover, Delaware. Jeffries checks on the K-9s twice a month. If an emergency occurs, they are either transported to her clinic or to a medical facility off post.
The officers said they take good care of their WMD's not only because they belong to the military, but because they are, in their desire for discipline, exercise and affection, like any average dog.
"We're not your typical working dog section because we're all civilians," said Vertz. "Most military kennels are strictly by the book; the dogs are considered equipment.
"They're not equipment; they're dogs, and we treat them like it. We play with them but they do their job," he said.
Even with proper training or enough experience, some of the dogs that make it past the APG gate aren't cut out for a working dog's life, such as 6-year-old German Shepherd Danzel.
"He doesn't have an aggressive bone in his body," Colbeck said.
The majority of dogs that come to APG are newly certified working dogs with no real-life experience in danger zones, but Danzel is the exception. Stationed in Iraq as a foreign service dog when an improvised explosive device hit him, Danzel lost his tail in the explosion and he arrived at APG diagnosed with a canine case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"He's been through a lot. You can tell because when we let him outside he will run in circles and circles," Rondone said.
"If you were to put Danzel in a sterile environment, he's the greatest dog ever. But once the explosions or once the loud noises happen, he just shuts down. There's no room for him in this program. But he's going to make the perfect pet," Colbeck said.
Colbeck and his family recently adopted Danzel and, though little is known about the effects of PTSD in dogs, they say he's getting along just fine.
"We go on walks with him all the time. My wife rides a bike and she holds him on a leash and he runs right next to her bike," Colbeck said, adding that he's hopeful that new research will shed light on the condition.
"They have special behavioral analysis now down in Lackland and they're doing a huge study on dogs who have PTSD. They try to rehabilitate them to go out into the field again," he said.
The emphasis is on rehabilitation but Colbeck said that 80-90 percent of the dogs do not return to the field.
When a dog is ready for retirement, either by age or circumstance, they're usually put up for adoption to a good home.
"There's a program in [Washington] D.C. where anybody can adopt a retired military working dog. You fill out a resume and they'll try to fit you with a dog that works for your situation. So if you have a Family, they'll find a dog that's good with kids. If you are single and want a dog for security, they'll find a more aggressive dog. They try to adopt every single dog that's out there," Colbeck said.
Officially, the military does not consider working dogs as Soldiers, but Colbeck says that may be changing.
"There's a big push now to get them (dogs) looked at as Soldiers. If a dog's in combat, then some recognition should go towards that dog," he said.
The police officers are all former service members and have all known each other for about 10 years. Some of them attended the police academy together.
"Somehow we all just made it to the same place at the same time," Rondone said.
"This (job) was my goal when I was in the military," added Vertz.
When asked why they applied to become MWD handlers and what they think about the job now, the response is unanimous.
"It's definitely the best job I've ever had," Rondone said.
For more information about the DOD's Military Working Dog's program, visit http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2006/working-dogs/. Or for information about how you can adopt a Military Working Dog, visit http://www.save-a-vet.org/d7/adopt.