A Defender's best friend

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's Note: This is part three of a three-part series about Security Forces Airmen)

With terrorist attacks like the April 15, 2013 bombings in Boston, Massachusets, Airmen all over the country are on high alert, especially military working dog handlers and their canines.
At Whiteman Air Force Base, canines and their handlers have responded to threats at schools, stores and many other places in the local area.

"The primary mission for our dogs is explosive detection," said Staff Sgt. Grant Meyers, 509th SFS canine handler. "That's the biggest threat that can kill people. Generally when we send dogs out for secret service, deployments or to the front gate, we are looking for explosives."

When it comes to responding to bomb threats and performing many other routine security duties, a dog is an Airman's best friend, according to Staff Sgt. Amanda Cubbage, 509th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler.

"The dog is your partner," Cubbage said. "You depend on that dog for everything from your sight to sound to hearing to smell. The dogs are able to detect anything thousands of times better than we are."

Effective communication, training and hard work are required for a bond to form between a canine and its handler. Additionally, extra time and effort is needed to help prepare the dogs for real-world scenarios through various exercises.

"A bond starts forming on the first day," Meyers said. "A lot of time is spent with the dog during training, and our dogs love what they do. The canines start viewing the handler as someone that allows them to do what they love every day."

Every time the canines perform tasks they love doing, the association between a handler and its canine strengthens, Meyers said.

"While these dogs perform their daily tasks, we play not only to their strengths, but we build up on their weaknesses," Meyers said. "So if we have a dog that's not as good at human detection or they're better at nose work or patrol, we're using their strengths to build on weaknesses with constant training."

Each dog is given four hours of training each day in conjunction with their routine law enforcement duties.

"We make the mission work with a lot of repetition and a lot of smart training plans," Meyers said.

With the overwhelming amount of training required to complete the mission, the handlers and trainers spend a lot more time on duty than most people outside of the career field think, according to Cubbage.

"I get six days off a month," Cubbage said. "We're on call 24/7 and we have a standby phone that we call the 'bomb phone,' which is for response to bomb threats. Anytime that phone goes off, it's on me to drop whatever I'm doing and tell my husband, 'Hey look, I've got to go. I don't know when I'm coming back. I love you. Bye.'"

Even on their days off, handlers are performing tasks such as taking their canine to the vet and catching up on training. While training, detection is the bread and butter of most exercises, Cubbage said.

"Everything our job is based off of is whether or not we allow drugs or explosives to get through the gate," Cubbage said.

In addition to training the dogs to detect drugs and explosives, the handlers also train the dogs to keep them confident and obedient.

"Obedience drives everything," Cubbage said. "If you don't have obedience, you can't build that relationship with your dog, which means your dog isn't going to want to work for you."

The dog's level of obedience helps handlers pinpoint the locations of odors, whether the odors are explosives or drugs, Cubbage said.

"Obedience helps the dog and handler learn each other's movements and body language," Meyers said. "So during obedience training, the canines and handlers are focused completely on each other."

Meyers said having the opportunity to train handlers and dogs makes him love his job.

"When a dog is going to come across a bomb, I want both the dog and the handler to know what they're doing," Meyers said. "In that moment, it's life or death. It's split-second. It's make one more step and you don't come home."