MWD: the road to certification

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hailey Staker
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
A military working dog and his handler walk out onto the field after being instructed to perform two lefts, two rights, two about faces and two halts while marching. The handler commands his dog to sit, lie down, sit back up and stay, then walks away and repeats the commands.

He commands the dog to heel and the 2-year-old, 90-pound German Shepherd walks toward his handler and sits correctly by his side.

They walk side-by-side through a gate toward the obstacle course where the dog is let lose to complete every obstacle on his own. He effortlessly balances on the catwalk, makes the first leap and gracefully trots up and down the stairs toward the next board to jump over.

Obstacle after obstacle he clears until he meets the tunnels, his only obstacles left until completion. Although his frame is larger than most military working dogs, he clears the tunnels with ease, just like it's second nature.

The handler bends down and ruffles the soft fur of the animal, praising him for a job well done. With the hardest part of the day coming up, the duo pushes through to the next task at hand: control aggression.

A decoy steps out onto the field dressed in a bite suit, prepared for anything the dog might do to complete his mission. He shakes the hand of the handler while the dog watches him. When the decoy runs away, the dog chases after him, jumping to grab hold of the decoy's arm, holding the bite for more than 10 seconds.

Once the handler calls him out of the bite, the animal lets go of the decoy and goes back to his handler. When asked to be searched, the decoy pushes the handler, and the dog bites without being commanded.

The decoy is escorted to the bleachers, the dog watches him attentively to ensure the decoy doesn't run or fight once more.

The decoy faces the handler, the dog stares at him in anticipation of his final task; the handler is nervous, knowing one of the hardest tasks for the animal to learn is next: the standoff.

Dax, an 18th Security Forces Squadron military working dog, has been on Kadena for the last seven months training with his handler, Staff Sgt. Ralph Rodriguez from the 18th SFS, to become a certified MWD. For Dax, certification almost wasn't a possibility.

"Dax was a dog that (Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas,) bought as a puppy, like any other dog, and they were going to train him," Rodriguez said. "Lackland did the detection part of his training, and Dax passed, but Dax likes to spin in his kennel. While he was spinning in the kennel, he hurt his tail so they had to (remove it). When they did the procedure, he went into a medical recovery time."

Rodriguez explained how Dax and other dogs in the kennels got sick from a disease there after his procedure, which put him on medical hold for longer than expected. As a result, Dax had gone past the time that the Dog Training School was allotted to train him.

"Once he passed that timeframe, it was done," Rodriguez said. "Dax didn't pass because he outgrew his time, and after that, Dax was left at Lackland until they could figure out what to do. Thanks to (Lt. Col. Kathy Jordan, 18th SFS commander,) we got him."

At a time when Kadena lost four dogs due to medical reasons or retirement, Lackland could only supply two certified MWDs. However, they had Dax who they could provide to Kadena under the condition that Kadena trained and certified him on tasks such as obedience and patrol.

Rodriguez, a MWD handler of three years, had never trained a military working dog until now.

"Training Dax was definitely a challenge," Rodriguez said. "At the beginning, we thought it was going to be the obedience and the patrol work, but it turns out that Dax was sitting in medical hold for so long, even the detection part he had forgotten. We had to remind him again what odor was and how to find it, which he picked up faster because he just had to be refreshed on it."

Rodriguez said training Dax was a new experience and was very difficult. He needed to show Dax the basics of obedience: how to sit, lie down, heel and stay, as well as how to bite a target and run through the obstacle course.

"Every task would take at least three days with him, but little by little he caught on to what he was actually supposed to do," Rodriguez said.

After obedience was complete, Dax began bite and patrol work. Once he mastered control aggression, Rodriguez said, Dax ran through the obstacle course, taking his time to understand he could fit through the tunnels. The standoff proved Dax's most challenging task to accomplish.

"It's a process of him having the desire to bite, hold, how strong his bite is and how to control him when he's biting," Rodriguez said. "Once he learned how to 'out the bite,' he needed to know what the word 'out' meant. If he's chasing a decoy and I tell him out, he should stop chasing the individual, which is the standoff."

After seven months of training, Rodriguez and Dax were ready for certification day, March 25, and could finally showcase Dax's hard work and dedication to overcome medical hold and become a certified military working dog.

The decoy takes off running, and Rodriguez releases Dax, resulting in the decoy giving up. Once called out, Dax sits behind his decoy, performing the perfect standoff and completing this portion of his certification.

The final tasks Dax needed to complete were detection and gunfire. Dax was brought onto the base and tasked with finding a decoy that had been hiding behind a door. Once building detection was complete, Rodriguez hid a decoy in a field, letting Dax head into the field and find the hiding perpetrator.

For gunfire training, the certifier fired three shots, each one closer to the duo, ensuring Dax was not aggressive toward the gun or his handler. Rodriguez was then offered the gun, and shot two rounds, ensuring Dax was not aggressive. The military working dog, so close to the end, did nothing, completing the task at hand, and ending certification day.

"Once gunfire was done, that was the last task and (the certifier) said he was good-to-go and certified Dax," Rodriguez said.

With certification complete, Dax can begin advancing what he already knows.

"Dax is certified, now it's just advancing him," Rodriguez said. "He's certified on the basics. He bites, he stands off, and he knows obedience. There are different tasks, which are not required for him to pass, just advancement for dogs, so you can have a better dog."

Rodriguez, who has been in the Air Force for 12 years, became a MWD handler after realizing he wasn't challenged enough in his everyday duties of being a response force member.

"Working with a dog is probably the best thing I've done as far as in my career, and training a dog by far has been my greatest achievement," Rodriguez said. "Training a dog from the bottom and seeing him grow, he knows nothing, all of a sudden you see him certification day and he's doing every single thing by the book, it's amazing."