Determined trainer boosts canine warrior's skills

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Heather Heiney
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
It has been said that there is no closer relationship than that of a boy and his dog, but a military working dog and its handler share a bond that allows them to communicate without language, move synchronously and risk their lives for one another and the mission.

Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Collins, 81st Security Forces Squadron MWD trainer, and his German shepherd partner, Bady, have this relationship.

Collins first met Bady when he was attending a supervisor's course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. At the time, Keesler needed another detector dog to replace one that was about to retire. Bady was the only dog available, but had "washed out" of detector training Collins decided to bring Bady back to Keesler and complete the training himself.

"The dog was in limbo," Collins said, "but his drives were so high."

Lackland only has a certain amount of time to train a dog and then the dog has to move on, fully qualified or not. Bringing Bady to Keesler allowed Collins the one-on-one time that Bady needed to absorb the process of detection.

"I was confident that our section could get him detection-certified," Collins said.

He also said that if he hadn't trained Bady for detection here at Keesler, it would have cost the Air Force more money to fully train another dog and to send Bady to another base, most likely overseas, to work solely as a patrol dog.

Collins brought Bady to Keesler in October and spent two months fully training and qualifying the dog. Master Sgt. Lisa Phillips, a former 81st SFS MWD handler, witnessed the certification and assured that the height and depth of training was fulfilled.

In addition to maintaining his day job at the kennel, Collins also had to come in at night to work on Bady's detection training.

"We still have to meet the mission here," Collins said. "There was a lot of late-night training going on."

Collins also said that Bady may not have done well elsewhere because he's too aggressive and his bites are particularly hard. He said that in the wrong situation, someone could have been injured.

"It took three days before I could step into his kennel," Collins said. "On the third day, he had a curious look on his face and let me into the kennel. By the fifth day, I had physical contact."

Collins said that MWDs have to build a rapport and trust with their handlers over time.

A typical day for the dog handlers consists of unit physical training, controlled aggression/patrol training, feeding, cleaning, discussing troubleshooting methods and detection training. K-9s are trained to bite and hold, pursue an individual that is fleeing, detect odors and act on the command of the handler. The dog searches for an odor, performs a response and receives a reward.

"We use the behavioral drive of the dog to manipulate its actions," Collins said.

"The dog learns through self discovery, and we use successive approximation to train them. For instance, a dog doesn't learn to alert on an aid 4 feet deep automatically. We have to gradually get the dog to detect at that level, this is successive approximation," Collins said. "You know the phrase 'learning to crawl before we can walk'--it's basically the same thing."

After the dog is used to the decoy succumbing to its attacks, the handlers test its stress threshold by resisting the dog.

The decoy and handler talk to one another throughout each training session. They discuss what signs the dog gave, what that means for that particular dog and what they can do differently next time to elicit a different response. The handlers have to understand behavioral signs, as well as what's going on with their dog psychologically.

Handlers also receive veterinary training so that if something happens to their dog, they can react immediately and save the dog's life.

"We get a lot of the same training that the medical folks get," Staff Sgt. Nick Ford, MWD handler, said.

Collins dedicates nearly all of his time every day to making sure Bady and all the other dogs in the kennel are fully trained and cared for.

"He never leaves the kennel," said Ford.

"There is not a day that goes by that I don't put a smile on when I see Bady," Collins said. "It's a handler thing."