22 Aug 2008

My latest story for the paper

Here's a story I just did for the paper on Keesler's military working dogs. Though I've always been a big fan of all things canine, I didn't really know much about working dogs until I started researching and interviewing for this story...they're uh...pretty fierce, to say the least, but EXTREMELY well looked after. Anyway, here's the story (original link here):

Man's best friends train as canine warriors

by Staff Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez
Keesler Public Affairs

8/19/2008 - KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, MISS. -- The dog was big, fluffy, shaggy and golden-brown ... perfect if you want a big hug from a furry friend.

Or not. This dog wasn't trained for hugs. This dog was trained to attack!

The 81st Security Forces Squadron's military working dogs aren't your average hounds. They're specifically raised from birth and trained to be the canine equivalent of those who protect and serve.

"They're not pets, and they're not bred to be pets," said Tech. Sgt. Damian Phillips, kennel master. "They're trained attack dogs. If they're tolerant of people, (they won't be able to) apprehend a potential threat."

Because of the temperament required to be a working dog, these canines can't just "sleep at the foot of the bed." They live in a specially-designed kennel and each dog has his or her own specific enclosed area.

"The dogs are maintained in (the kennel) 24/7 and only myself, military working dog trainers or the on-duty handler are allowed inside the kennels," said Sergeant Phillips. "Even regular patrolmen aren't allowed to pet, touch or feed the dogs, but they can give them water (through a caged door) and spray out their area."

Working dogs receive complete and precise care every day.

"We go into the kennels every two to three hours and have a checklist that must be signed annotating all checks," explained Sergeant Phillips. "We ensure that they always have enough water and that their area is clean."

Weight maintenance and nutrition for the working dogs are closely monitored by the dog handlers. Per Department of Defense regulations, all military working dogs must be fed a particular brand of high-qualilty dog food, said Sergeant Phillips. In order to maintain the correct weight, the amount of food is constantly adjusted.

"(The type and amount of) food they get is exact, their training is exact and their duty is exact," said Sergeant Phillips. "They are required to have daily exercise, like physical training runs with their handlers, and they're also required to run our obstacle course at least once daily."

While the dogs are closely looked after by all of the trained security forces personnel that work in the working dog shop, each dog has a specific handler.

"I like working with the dogs -- it's a step up and new challenge from being a normal cop," said Staff Sgt. Benjamin McQuagge, a working dog handler. "(My dog and I) have a good relationship; we work out and play a lot."

The close relationship between a working dog and his handler extends beyond normal duty hours.

"Our job involves long hours and coming in on our days off," said Sergeant Phillips. "Even when we deploy, our dogs go with us -- be it the Middle East, the U.S.-Mexico border or even in support of the Secret Service. We do it, though, because we care about the dogs, and we love our job."

The technical training school for security forces personnel is about 10 weeks. The technical school to be a dog handler, referred to as "K9 school," at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is even longer -- 12 weeks.

"The training style is based on repetition -- the training gets drilled into us," said Sergeant McQuagge. "They teach us that each dog is different, how to read a dog and how to work with a dog. You're very comfortable with being a dog handler by the time you leave."

Not just any cop can become a military dog handler. Specific steps must be taken in order to qualify.

"You need to be a 5-level with a good record to be a dog handler," explained Sergeant Phillips. "You have to then put in a package with the virtual military personnel flight and, of course, successfully make it through the K9 school at Lackland."

With all of the care and training it takes to work with military working dogs, when it comes to where to house the operation, Keesler's new working dog facility more than meets the requirements, said Sergeant Phillips.

"This building is a $2 million facility with its own veterinary examination room, trainer office and food preparation room," said Sergeant Phillips. "Having every room (that you need) on site is nice."

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