Not your average dog

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

MCLB-ALBANY, Ga. -- These animals may look cute and cuddly, but they aren't exactly the pettin' kind.

They are the dogs assigned to the Marine Corps Police Department's K-9 unit at Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany.

The unit, stationed at the Cpl. Dustin Jerome Lee Kennel aboard the installation, consists of several dogs, all but one of which are German shepherds, a kennel master, a trainer and one handler for each dog.

The canines are referred to as civilian patrol working dogs rather than military working dogs because their handlers are civilian. During the dogs' service, they reside in the base's kennel, which was dedicated and renamed last year in memory of a Marine handler detached from the installation's police department when he was killed in Iraq on March 21, 2007.

The overall purpose of the unit is to assist in various tasks such as vehicle and walking patrols, building searches within insecure facilities, locating fleeing suspects or missing persons, conducting apprehensions, drug and explosives detection, conducting commercial vehicle inspections and supporting local off-base law enforcement with explosives detection.

The dogs can even be used to support the U.S. Secret Service in protection of the president, vice president as well as former presidents and dignitaries.

What makes them so good at this job is that they have a sense of smell five to 10 times stronger than humans, allowing them to detect minute traces of explosives or drugs.

"Dogs are so much smarter than we are," Jessie Smith, the kennel's trainer, said. "They are so much more astute and better prepared to help us out.

"People can be tricked. You can't trick a dog."

The kennel grounds consist of one training area and two break areas. On a typical day, the first priority is to feed the dogs and clean the kennel. After that, the animals undergo training -- which is done consistently to ensure they stay proficient -- in patrol and detection capabilities. They perform their duties as needed.

"In the afternoon, we feed them again and give them a break," said Kennel Master Angela Dunwoodie. "Our main concern is that when we are not utilizing them, we are training them."

It is a routine the dogs generally undergo until they are about 10-12 years of age.

"At around 10 years, they start to have medical or training problems," Dunwoodie said.

At the Lee Kennel, the youngest dog is a 2-and-a-half-year-old German shepherd, and the oldest is an 11-year-old German shepherd that will be adopted out for medical reasons in the coming weeks.

When a dog is retired and adopted out, officials generally give the animal to someone it has already established a bond with.

"We like to give them to the handlers because they are familiar with the dog, so the majority of the time it is the handler or a family with experience with working dogs," Dunwoodie said.

"They (the dogs) have a pretty strong bond with their handlers. We don't interact much when the dogs and their handlers are getting to know one another."

The training areas for the dogs include obstacle courses, obedience, gunfire training -- which teaches the animals not to be afraid of gunshots -- as well as building searches, scouting and controlled aggression.

Some specific training examples include techniques such as "search and re-attack," which is when the dog walks alongside the handler while he or she is escorting a suspect so the canine can attack if the suspect tries to escape; or "stand-off," which is when a dog chases after a runaway. Dogs are taught not to attack if the suspect surrenders.

Another important thing the dogs have to learn is when it is appropriate to use their skills.

"They don't attack unless they are told to," Dunwoodie explained. "This allows them to interact with the handler."

Obstacle course training teaches the dogs how to go around or over walls, through tunnels and over fences. Detection training pertains to either drugs or explosives. At MCLB-Albany, the groups the dogs are broken down into are patrol/explosives detection, patrol/drug detection and explosives detection.

Per the Posse Comitatus Act, the only skill the dogs are allowed to perform off the base is explosives detection. Animals can only be trained in either explosives detection or drug detection, but not both because a handler would not be able to tell which one the dog was responding to.

Smith has a history of being around working dogs from his time as a handler with the Albany-Dougherty Drug Unit. He came into his current position six months ago.

"I enjoy working with dogs and I enjoy being outside, and working in the kennel allows me to do both of those things," he said. "Plus dogs don't talk back."

Smith himself recently adopted a former working dog -- a German shepherd named Aldo.

"Because of the nature of the business, and him not being able to hear, I requested he be allowed to live with me," the trainer said.

Aldo will be 12 years old in March.

The breeds chosen to do this job are generally either German shepherds or Belgian Malinois.

"They have the drive and the willingness to work," Dunwoodie said.

In order to become a working dog, the animals are selected -- generally when they are 1-2 years of age -- and trained for 11 weeks at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. They are expected to pass all the basic, patrol and detector skills before being sent to a base.

Their handlers are trained at Lackland for 10 weeks to learn about patrol and detection capabilities as well as gain knowledge about dogs, after passing an interview board. The personnel that make it to MCLB-Albany work a 10-hour day for four shifts a week.