By Ms Kari Hawkins (AMCOM)July 14, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Bleckie and Bruno are two dogs who know how to put on a show.
But their dog shows aren’t based on fluffy hair, bows and nail polish, or their breed’s physical good looks.
Rather, these two military working dogs compete at dog shows that judge their ability to detect explosives.
And as members of one of the best military working dog units in the nation, Bleckie and Bruno " and their handlers -- followed tradition by bringing home to Redstone Arsenal yet another group of trophies won at the U.S. Police Canine Association’s regional and national detector dog trials.
“We have consistently done well within the region and nationally,” said Sgt. Billy Booth, the handler for Bleckie, indicating several trophies in the office of the Directorate of Emergency Services’ military working dog section. “We are very confident with our dogs. And we like to continuously test ourselves. That’s how we get better.”
At the regional competition in Chattanooga in April, Booth and Bleckie brought home first place in indoor explosives detection, outdoor explosives detection and overall explosives detection; and Officer Eric Moe and his dog Bruno brought home third place in agility in the patrol section and second place in indoor explosives search. As a team, the foursome placed second in the region, which included canine law enforcement teams from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
Because of their high scores, the foursome went on to the national detector dog trials held in Pearl, Miss., in May. Booth and Bleckie won second overall in explosive detection, first place in outdoor explosives search and second place in indoor explosives search. Moe and Bruno won fifth place overall in explosive detection with a third place in indoor explosives search.
“This competition was very important to us and brought with it a certain amount of stress because we wanted to do well not only for our personal reasons but also for everyone else who works here at the kennel in the canine section,” Booth said.
“Everyone here is involved in everything we do for our dogs. It takes all of us to train these dogs and to care for them. We set out training problems for each other, and we all help with grooming, bathing, vet medications and anything to do with the well-being of the dogs. And all of us have had to play the bad guy role for the attack dogs.”
Preparing for competitions doesn’t mean changing the routine at the military working dog section. Training is an everyday activity that requires a higher standard than that set by the police canine association. Army regulations for military working dogs are much more stringent that those followed in civilian police and search units.
“Getting them ready for the trials wasn’t any different than what we normally do. We are continuously training,” Booth said. “We did, though, work more on the national odor recognition test because they had to pass that before they could compete in the operational testing.”
To pass the odor recognition tests, dogs must be able to detect the odors in 18 different cans. At the trials, the canine teams are judged on their speed and accuracy in locating explosives while adhering to accepted search practices and procedures. They are also judged on leash control, the canine’s quick alert response, the thoroughness and consistency of the search, and the attitude of both the handler and the dog.
“The three judges and chief judge score you and your dog as a team,” Booth said. “So, it is very important that the two of you understand each other, that you can read each other’s body language and that you can respond quickly to each other.”
For Booth and Bleckie, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, there was a steep learning curve as they developed as partners. The two have only been together since February, being partnered by the military working dog section’s lead, Capt. Jack Rush, after Booth’s dog of five years, Eestabon, died of cancer. This was their first competition working together.
Moe and Bruno, a 10-year-old Belgian Malinois, have been together for two years. Bruno is trained both as an explosives detection dog and as an attack dog. Though Bruno has competed before, it was Moe’s first experience as a handler at a competition.
“I was nervous,” Moe said. “Anytime you go before other dog handlers " your peers " and you want to do your best, it can make you nervous. Competition causes a lot of stress. And your dog knows it. They can tell it in your body language and how you hold the leash tight. But they also know how to work with it.”
Knowing each other and being able to work together in all kinds of situations are part of the bonding experience between a handler and a canine.
“When a handler is partnered with a dog, there is a period where you are building rapport,” Moe said of his friendship with Bruno.
“For the first two weeks to a month, you just hang out together, going for walks, playing ball and being yourself so that the dog gets to know your body language and your demeanor. After that, you start using commands and work up to him obeying you. Once we had that rapport, we worked on explosives training and attack training together.”
The handler-dog team is based on a bond that develops with time and experiences together. Booth and Moe both look forward to different experiences they can share with their dogs, such as doing demonstrations for organizations on post.
“We need to know how our dogs respond to live situations. They can cause a lot of stress,” Booth said. “So, it’s good to put both the handler and the dog in situations that can help prepare them for the real thing. The dog has got to be able to perform just as well even when their handler is under a lot of stress.”
Both Booth and Moe, like the other handlers at the section, enjoy the time they spend with their military working dogs, both on and off duty.
“You get to play with the dogs all day,” Booth said.
“They are very controllable dogs. They are not mean dogs by any means, but they have been trained to have controlled aggression. One of the first things in training is making sure we can approach civilians with our patrol dog. We try not to take any chances. We put a lot of time and training into these dogs.”
The two handlers like the competitions for more than the trophies they bring home. The events also give them the opportunity to learn different training techniques, network with other dog handlers and spend a lot of time with their dogs.
“Since we have a kennel facility here, we don’t take our dogs home with us,” Booth said. “So, when we get to stay in a hotel room with our dog, we get 24 hours of bonding time. I really noticed a difference in Bleckie after the time we spent together in Chattanooga. We just got to know each other better.”
Both Booth and Moe have a lot of experience as dog handlers. Booth grew up in the country with hunting dogs and became a military working dog handler after joining the Arsenal’s police force.
“I kind of lucked into this job,” Booth said. “Once I got into it there was no turning back. I just really, really enjoyed it.”
Moe grew up with three German shepherds. After 9/11, he joined the Army’s military police force, hoping to eventually be assigned to a military working dog unit. In 2002, he was stationed at the Arsenal, working as a military police officer and spending his off time volunteering at the military working dog section. He was eventually assigned to the section while at Redstone. After six years in service, Moe left the Army and returned to Redstone to work in the military working dog section.
There is close camaraderie between the officers who work in the Arsenal’s military working dog section and between the officers and the section’s dogs.
“These dogs are our partners,” Booth said. “From a law enforcement standpoint, you are working with them all the time, and that increases your confidence level in your dog’s abilities.”
“Handlers have a real strong bond with their dog. You can’t replace it,” Moe added.