By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Feb. 7, 2012 – Bernadine Green stands tall amid a group of young military recruits in training, assessing their behavior for signs of future excellence.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Russell Minta, senior noncommissioned officer for the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog Breeding Program on Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, plays with a puppy. The program provides working dogs to every service branch and numbers among the largest military breeding programs in the world.
In the coming months, some of these troops will “wash out” of training, while others will go on to serve their nation, saving lives and ensuring security in locations around the world.
But for the moment, Green is content to just stand back and watch. These future troops are, after all, just a few weeks old and of a much different sort — or, to put it more accurately, breed — than their military training counterparts.
While Lackland is known for its basic military training — a grueling eight-and-a-half week program that turns young men and women into airmen — it’s also home to the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog Breeding Program, which provides working dogs to every service branch and numbers among the largest military breeding programs in the world.
Green, the program’s deputy director and a former Maryland State Police canine handler, is among a team of dog experts that breed, train and raise Belgian Malinois to serve alongside other military working dogs, a select group used by DOD and other government agencies for patrol, drug and explosive detection, and in specialized missions both stateside and overseas.
The breeding program, administered by the 341st Training Squadron, is an important DOD asset, Green told American Forces Press Service as she cradled an 11-week-old Belgian Malinois named Donja in her arms. “We can provide a product that’s specially tailored for our needs,” she said. “We can start these puppies from birth … and really start guiding them along the DOD training path.”
At the heart of the program are the breeders — known as stud dogs and brood bitches — which are selected for their outstanding performance as military working dogs. Experts select only Belgian Malinois for this purpose, Green explained, because that breed tends to make outstanding working dogs, able to carry out their mission equally well on an installation or in a combat zone.
Once a litter is born, the puppies progress through three phases that help determine their suitability to become a military working dog. The first phase, called whelping, takes place from until the puppies are 8 weeks old. This early on, whelping care attendants mainly are getting a feel for the puppies’ personalities and exposing them to a variety of sounds.
Meanwhile, trainers and development specialists are keeping an eye out for the attributes that bode well for a successful working dog, Green said as she gestured toward a litter of puppies — fourth-generation DOD — tumbling over each other in a small playhouse. She ticked off a list of those qualities: not afraid of noises, inquisitive, eager to check out new places, sociable, not overly aggressive, and eager to play with objects, such as toys and balls.
As if on cue, Donja — whose birth name is Ddonja, in keeping with the program’s official double-letter naming convention — wiggled out of Green’s arms and began gnawing on a rope. DOD-bred dogs’ names all start with double letters, she explained, to distinguish them from other military working dogs.
At about eight weeks, the puppies are placed in a foster home, where they stay for about five months. Foster families are volunteers from San Antonio and outlying communities. Some are service members or veterans, while others have military affiliation, but all share a common desire to serve.
“Families love to do it,” Green said. “It’s their way of giving back to the community and the military, and also for the sheer pleasure of caring for a puppy.”
The foster phase serves several purposes, she explained. By living in a home versus an austere kennel, they learn social skills and are exposed to a variety of environments. “Families take them everywhere — to school, playgrounds, stores, work,” Green said. “It broadens the puppy’s horizon.”
Having foster homes also keeps the program’s costs manageable, she added.
“This phase is probably the most integral part of the program,” Green noted. “Without these foster parents raising puppies, … we don’t get well-rounded dogs.”
At about 7 months old, foster families return the puppy to Green and her colleagues, a challenging time not just for the puppy, but also for the families who have grown attached to their now-beloved family member.
“We have a lady who fostered 13 puppies and one of the brood bitches,” Green said. Each time she returns a puppy, she added, “she cries a blue streak.” The transition also can be tough on the puppy, Green noted, which now must adjust to sleeping in a kennel instead of their home. “They’re taken care of, but it’s not the same as being with their family,” she said.
Some puppies don’t recover from the loss, which is a strong indicator the dog isn’t suited for military work. In that case, the dog is put up for adoption, Green said, noting there’s a long list of people waiting to adopt DOD dogs.
The puppies that adjust well enter adolescent training, an intensive phase that lasts about five months and serves as a precursor to working dog training. Trainers use this time to expose the dogs to situations and environments they may encounter on an installation or in a combat zone, such as aircraft, vehicles and strange buildings, and to sounds such as gunfire.
“We evaluate how they are environmentally, their object drive, how long they’ll play or interact with us,” Green said. “This all leads to the ability to train as a detection dog.”
When they’re about 12 months old, the dogs are evaluated for entry into the 341st Training Squadron’s Military Working Dog Training Program here, which is about 120 days long and teaches the dogs how to patrol and detect drugs and bombs worldwide. The squadron also trains all handlers, kennel masters and specialized mission function dog teams for the Defense Department.
Puppies that enjoy biting on balls, rags and “bite sleeves” tend to make good patrol dogs, Green explained, which are dogs tasked with security. They work with a handler to protect government assets, to track and apprehend, and to search buildings, among other tasks. Dogs that prefer to use their nose versus their teeth most likely will excel at detection work, she added, such as sniffing out explosives.
The program’s goal is to produce about a third of DOD’s working dog requirement, or about 270 dogs militarywide, Green noted. While most of these dogs are assigned to military installations worldwide, based on demand, some may be sent to another government agency, such as the Transportation Security Administration. The 341st supports the TSA canine detection program with shared training facilities and working dog procurement.
“Right now, the need is great for detection dogs,” she said, noting that the demand for these dogs skyrocketed after 9/11 and continues with the ongoing dangers posed to troops by homemade bombs. “These puppies will save more people with their nose than they ever will with their teeth.”
Army Sgt. 1st Class Russell Minta, the program’s senior noncommissioned officer, credits his former military working dog for his safe return from two deployments in Iraq. “He took care of me downrange,” he said. “No one ever got within a leash length of me, and I was never worried about running into a bomb of any type. He cleared thousands of homes and roadways and fields.”
As Green headed back to a private room to check on a new litter of puppies, she noted her pride at taking part in a mission that saves lives and protects troops in places such as Afghanistan.
It’s a mission she expects to continue, particularly since it ensures a steady supply of quality working dogs to the military. “We have a homegrown source right here,” she said.