News: The daily grind: Day in the life of the K-9 unit
Story by Spc. Alexander Neely
KUWAIT - There was still an hour until sunrise and Harold Blanson, the kennel master for Area Support Group-Kuwait’s K-9 unit, was already hard at work. At over 6-feet tall, Blanson, who has the physical frame of a former football linebacker, was dwarfed at a desk with piles of training schedules and maintenance forms. The office was silent apart from muffled barks echoing from the kennel down the hall.
Over the next half-hour, the front door opened several times as dog handlers arrived for their 12-hour shift. Eventually training was assigned and forms were filled out. However, nothing – not a conversation nor sip of coffee – will occur prior to greeting the dogs for the work day.
“Some people adopt dogs as pets, but we actually have to work with our animal; so, we get the same pleasure as you would a pet,” said Blanson, who has nearly 25-years’ experience in the K-9 field.
With each new foot through the front door, a chorus of barks resonated throughout the K-9 building. Handlers, prior to their personal morning routine, performed an immediate check on their partner, or dog. From kennel decontaminations to full-body examinations, the only time the dog leaves the handler’s side is to eat breakfast.
“When I come in the morning, first thing I do is go see my dog,” said Sheila Howard, explosive detection dog handler for ASG-Kuwait’s K-9 unit. “I groom her and make sure there are no cuts or anything of that nature.”
While the animals eat breakfast, Blanson assigned search locations and exercise details to each handler, as they gathered the last remaining items for their truck. The vehicle, which is emblazoned with ASG-Kuwait's signature logo on the side, is outfitted with a kennel, and a myriad of leashes, dog snacks and medical equipment.
Once the daily preparation was solidified, each handler collected their partner and drove out to one of three search locations – a Camp Arifjan entrance, the mail room or an active building on base such as the PX.
This morning I followed Howard and her dog, Uma, to an entry-control point on Camp Arifjan. From the moment Uma’s paws hit the ground she was sniffing; she was working. Howard, who stood above Uma with a near-miniature frame of approximately 5 feet, looked as if one good pull on the leash would send her into the air. However, through verbal commands and pulls by Howard on the leash, Uma abided with her direction.
“You really want a balance in emotion because the handler and the dog are a team,” said Ted Gray, trainer at ASG-Kuwait’s K-9 unit. “A hyper person and a hyper dog probably won’t last long because they are going to tire themselves out, so it has to be a good mesh, a good fit for the team to work.”
The direction Howard presented was directly into the K-9 “shack.” The small building, which consists of a kennel, a refrigerator and several chairs, is mainly a source of air conditioning and rest for the dogs. Although Uma is an English Labrador (according to Gray, the preferred breed for K-9 units are German Shepherds or Belgian Malinois), she is known as a “push button.”
“She is a natural,” said Howard. “All I have to do is hold onto the leash and she does all the work.”
Outside of the “shack,” Howard proves Uma’s natural ability by leading her through a row of vehicles outside of the entry control point. From bumper to bumper, Uma glided concisely, sniffing with a frantic determination.
“The human has five million receptors that can detect odors but the dog has 125-225 million receptors,” said Gray, who is a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army. “The ‘Stew Theory’ is when a pizza delivery guy comes to the door, a human may smell the pizza, but the dog can distinguish and separate between all of the different odors from the cheese, to the pepperoni to the type of cologne the delivery man is wearing.”
At 6:45 a.m., I met Aurelio Ennis, a narcotics dog handler, at the central mail location on Camp Arifjan. Each morning a handler and his dog are tasked to search through the mail trucks, packages and any other pieces of assorted mail. In their search, Ennis and Grace, a German Shepherd, swiftly scour the mail for narcotics. On this day there are no reactions from the dog - no narcotics. Following the mail examination, Ennis brings Grace back to the K-9 unit building in order to give a demonstration of the obedience course
"The obedience course is where the dog gains confidence in doing things it normally wouldn't do," said Ennis.
In an enclosed area at the back of the K-9 building, several obstacles such as stairs, tubes and elevated walkways are set in sand. Ennis seamlessly guides Grace across a walkway and over a 2-foot wall. Although Grace's maturity is evident in her ability to easily overcome each obstacle, it is not until the staircase that she displays complete obedience. Ennis, who had let go off the leash, watched from the bottom of the stairs as Grace scaled the stairs then sat atop awaiting her next command. The Navy veteran met her atop; the two of them creating a symbiotic silhouette in the hanging sunlight. The moment Grace crossed the "finish line," Ennis and the other handlers in attendance showered her with praise - a reaction that felt as genuine as the moment itself.
"You cannot help but want to reward them because no matter what, they always try and please you," said Ennis, who called Grace his partner. "It might sound funny to you but I do talk to her throughout the day."
After a brief lunch for the handlers and a rest for the dogs, training resumed in the form of a warehouse search. The exercise, which is designed to simulate a large building with several objects, forces the dog to differentiate a variety of smells emitting from a variety of locations. It is for this reason, as the trainer explained; placement of the live explosives is as much tactical as it is technical.
“There are so many variables when placing the aides in the warehouse – the dog’s scent cone [an invisible boundary of the dog’s scent ability], the dog’s height, fans in the warehouse, vents in the walls and the movement of the doors,” said Gray, while he placed two live explosives in the warehouse.
Blanson and Gray supervised as, over the next hour, three handlers and their dogs searched the warehouse through what is called the high-low point method. The practice forces the handler to point to specific low and high spots around the dog, in order for the animal to gain a full scent-spectrum of the area.
Although the movements are smoothly calculated, each handler approached them with a different energy. Differences aside, the results were the same - each handler and their dog finished the course in less than ten minutes, having found each live explosive.
“A lot of our success comes from the work we do outside of work; you’re constantly seeking more knowledge, constantly reading about new theories and about what’s new in the K-9 field,” said Gray. “We all are striving to be masters of our craft.”