Ruff job: Malmstrom K-9s follow their nose

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cortney Paxton
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
At Malmstrom Air Force Base, Airmen are tasked with safely, securely and effectively defending the nuclear assets of the base and thus, the nation. Among these dedicated Airmen are six unique and highly skilled members protecting those who enter the base every day - and all by the tip of their nose.

With four legs, long snouts, a tail and an undeniably keen sense of smell, these six members are the 341st Security Forces Squadron's military working dogs. Among them are four German shepherds; Aslan, Gina, Susy and Zsabi, as well as two Belgian malinois, Bibi and Tom. They range in age from Gina, the youngest, at 3 years old to Bibi, the oldest, at 9 years old.

"The basic mission for the K-9s at Malmstrom Air Force Base is to provide detection for the base as well as the local area and to provide the patrolmen with a secondary means for intruder detection as well as intruder apprehension," said Staff Sgt. Ian Miller, 341st SFS MWD kennel master. "Our dogs are capable of detecting a variety of substances as well as personnel - so if we have someone covertly enter the base and try to hide in a field or building, our dogs can provide a scout or building search and... pinpoint their location. We're a big psychological deterrent for the base populace."

In order to effectively detect and apprehend intruders as well as detect illegal substances and explosives, the dogs start training at a very young age and continue it throughout their career as an MWD.

"They start out [their careers] at about 1 year old," said Staff Sgt. Antonio Padilla, 341st SFS MWD trainer. "They go through DTS, which is Dog Training School for them - it's like a little puppy boot camp - and there, they train them to learn [the scents of] different substances. When the dog first gets to Malmstrom, they have to have a sit time to get used to the environment, and then a handler gets [matched with] the dog. Then, they have to build a rapport and the rapport-building is about a couple weeks... Then, after that, we start going into detection because that's pretty much the bread and butter for the MWD teams... [They train] until they get to the validation portion, which is 90 days after the handler picks up the dog."

Throughout their training, the K-9s are taught basic obedience, detection capabilities and also build a trustworthy bond with their handlers. The bond made between the K-9 and their handler is unique to their personalities and one that must be made to ensure proper teamwork for efficient mission completion.

Along with the mission on Malmstrom, the base's K-9s have supported various other missions across the state, the nation and the world.

"We provide bomb threat response capabilities for the southern portion of Montana," Miller said. "If it's a bomb threat, the off-base person would call us and then we'd route the request through our chain of command and respond. But anytime a dog leaves the installation, it has to be approved by the wing commander.

"Our dogs have been on a variety of details," he continued. "We've had dogs go to Brasilia, Brazil, Mumbai, India, as well as various locations and conventions in the United States such as the Democratic Convention and the United NATO meeting. They've provided security for the president, vice president [and] many dignitaries from other countries."

As part of off-base support, a K-9 was sent to support the search of a possible unexploded pipe bomb last year. According to the MWD unit, the local police were looking through footage on a vehicle's dash cam and saw that a possible pipe bomb thrown from a suspect's vehicle had not exploded. After a request was made, an MWD team responded to the area and located the bomb.

But local incidents aren't the only time a K-9 may have experience detecting bombs.

"I've heard stories - I have friends who have been deployed several times," Padilla said. "[Military working dog teams] get attached to Special Forces, Marines or Army infantry and, most of the time, their primary job is to be the point man. What that means is they'll be in the very front - they'll be detecting [improvised explosive devices], bombs and can even see personnel from ahead, point them out and then have the rest of the platoon eye them out. Their primary job is to find IEDs, and the usefulness of MWD teams on missions is very popular because they're saving a lot of lives."

Saving a life is exactly what Malmstrom's K-9s are trained to do, and although extremely important, their careers in the military are shorter than their human counterparts'.

"The average working career for a dog is typically around nine or 10 years, but some dogs last longer," Padilla said. "It's basically until they're medically discharged or they just stop being proficient - most of the time it's old age or medical reasons. After the dogs can't work anymore, we will adopt them out unless we would have to euthanize them for medical reasons."

After retiring, the K-9 will be evaluated through a series of tests to determine if he or she is aggressive in any way, and from there, will be adopted by a family fit to provide the necessary care. The K-9's handler usually has the option to adopt the dog first, allowing a loyal bond to remain between the two of them.

"The bonds between the dogs and their handlers are very unique in the fact that each one is different and it's hard to explain," Miller said. "It's a bond that is like no other - [they're] like your best friend and at the same time, your partner who you'd trust with your life."