A blanket of silence covered Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. A group of people in civilian clothes gathered together in a large gated area covered with green turf, steam emanating from behind their masks in the crisp, cool morning air.
A man wearing an Air Force uniform began speaking in front of the group, temporarily digging through the calm silence.
Shortly after he was finished, the only audible sounds remaining were the heavy panting of a brown and black Belgian malinois and high-pitched howls of praise from his handler and others in the area.
The 4th Security Forces Squadron military working dog section invited handlers and their dogs from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and the East Carolina University Police Department to join them April 20 for a day of training at the base.
“It’s important that we get together and train together because all of our different areas of expertise and knowledge can make all of us better handlers,” said Tech. Sgt. Dakota Willis, 4th SFS MWD section noncommissioned officer in charge. “There aren’t too many dog handlers in the military, federal, and civilian world so one person’s information and guidance can go a long way.”
The morning started off with handlers and their dogs going through an obstacle course which involved jumping and scaling over barriers, going through tunnels, and traversing a long,
Willis said while this type of training is common to the military working dog world, their counterparts often don’t get the chance to run through a course like this.
After taking turns going through the course, the group dispersed into several teams to go through special scenarios tailored to each dog’s area of expertise.
“Unlike our MWDs, the other dogs here are trained for only one thing,” Willis said. “They’re trained in either explosive, narcotics, arson, or cadaver detection, and that’s it. Our dogs require extensive additional training including strict obedience training, how to properly bite and hold, and more.”
During the explosive detection portion of the training, more than 70 pounds of explosives were hidden in a vehicle. The handler, knowing where the explosives were, had to read the dog’s body language to see if they could find the location of the explosives.
“With a large amount of explosives here, there’s an abundance of scent for the dog to pick up,” said Dave Heath, ECUPD explosives canine handler. “I know how my dog, Koda, reacts when he picks up small traces of explosive material. Today I saw how he reacts when there’s a large amount of matter.”
Down the road from Heath and the other explosive detection dog teams, one group took turns searching for drugs hidden in a training building and the last group searched for human remains.
“The cadaver that my dog, Vegas, detected is actually a rag we got from a mortuary,” said Ashlee Cowan, SBI special agent. “That little rag is more than enough for a cadaver dog to pick up the scent and track down.”
The last course of the day involved finding explosives in a heavily cluttered indoor and outdoor area. Unlike the morning detection course, the handlers didn’t know where the explosives were and had to rely on their partner’s nose, just as they would in the real world.
Throughout the day, Willis and other experienced handlers shared their knowledge and expertise with the group and each other. Some handlers got to see how their dogs reacted in new situations, others were able to reinforce their dog’s good behaviors, and some taught their dog a new trick or two. In the end, all the handlers were able to make new contacts and, most importantly of all, enjoy spending time with their four-legged partners and friends.