Vance security forces: K-9 unit 'force multipliers' for squadron

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  • By Staff Sgt. Amanda Savannah
  • Public Affairs
Although physically one of the smallest security forces sections on Vance Air Force Base, this unit's force equals about 10 times its size.
"Security forces squadrons have dog teams because we consider them 'force multipliers,'" said Staff Sgt. Andrew Odell, 71st Security Forces Squadron kennel master. "This means we can do more with less. We don't need several Airmen to secure one area, we can just use one dog team."
Their keen senses also make them better able to find people, explosives and drugs.
"Nowadays people are extremely creative in how they hide their drugs and explosives," the Mesa, Ariz., native said. "You can't fool the dog's nose."
Vance's K-9 team includes 4-year-old Eukay, a Belgian Malinois; 2-year-old Cini, a German shepherd; and 6-year-old Roy, another Belgian Malinois. Sergeant Odell handles Eukay and Cini, while Vance's only other dog handler, Staff Sgt. Ralph Conklin, handles Roy.
Security forces members do not begin on this elite team, however. To be a dog handler, Airmen must meet several criteria as well as be part of the security forces career field.
"Whatever term an Airman enlists for, he or she has to meet half that time," Sergeant Odell said. "The person also must hold a five-skill level and be recommended by the kennel master and operations officer.
"Then the person is eligible to cross train and attend the military working dog school at Lackland (AFB, Texas) for 11 weeks. At school, Airmen learn things ranging from basic upkeep of the dogs, grooming, health inspections and the animal's psychology, to the training, where you apply psychology into the training everyday, manipulating the animal to do required tasks such as sitting, staying and negotiating obstacles."
The training further includes a patrol evaluation, where handlers demonstrate the dog's ability to be tolerable to individuals approaching the officer, engage an individual and hold them for 15 seconds as well as break a pursuit. They also perform building searches and scouting, which is locating a subject using the wind with the dog's sense of smell.
Once an officer completes training, he or she is assigned to a base and then a dog. On any given day, new dog handlers can be found washing the dogs, cleaning out runs or developing their rapport with their assigned dog.
"This includes grooming it, walking it, playing fetch with it, developing a relationship, and this lasts for the first few days," Sergeant Odell said. "Then we start incorporating fun, training-type exercises, but nothing too harsh to make the dog shy of the handler. Typically we start with detection training, because it's a challenging game for them."
Eventually, a team starts patrol training, which includes locating and subduing suspects.
To handle a dog, a handler must be certified, or validated, on patrol and detection work. This is because a dog must be validated to be deployable, Sergeant Odell said.
Sergeant Conklin has been a handler for about two years.
"It's been great; I can take the skills I've learned anywhere to use at another base or even outside the military," the Rochester, N.Y., native said. "The biggest downside is having to leave the dog behind when I separate from the Air Force."
"Sergeant Conklin has come a long way in the year I've been here," said Sergeant Odell. "He's got a lot of great experience, and he's made four drug finds in the last few months with his dog, so they're working extremely well together. They're a great team and I have the utmost confidence in their abilities."
Sergeant Odell has been a dog handler for four years.
"I was deployed one year and worked for the vehicle search team," he said. "I got to work with the K-9s and I was able to see it's not just 'read the book' training. It's totally outside the box thinking. There's not one right way to do it. Plus, it's just fun working with a dog."
As kennel master, Sergeant Odell is in charge of the dogs. He advises commanders on proper use of them in the field, answers any questions, cares for all the dogs' health and training, accounts for the training drugs and explosives, and certifies other dog handlers.
Sergeant Odell is not the final authority in validating a dog team, however. Col. Bryan Benson, 71st Flying Training Wing commander, authorizes the 71st Mission Support Group commander to certify each dog team.
"This must be done each time the MSG commander changes; thus, Col. (Christopher) Thelen was the last to certify our teams," Sergeant Odell said. "This means he actually observes the dogs perform, locating each substance they're trained to find. He then signs a letter basically saying he has the utmost confidence that when these dogs respond, there are either drugs or explosives present."
"To certify the teams, I had the handlers run the dogs through drills using drug or explosive samples, depending on the dog," Colonel Thelen said. "I'm looking for the dog to spot and identify the location of the substance. We need to validate it's not a false positive, so that when we actually run a dog through a vehicle and it responds, we have full confidence in the find, and we can perform a full search.
"(Vance) has been my first opportunity to view dog teams. I am 100 percent confident that if our dog teams find something, it will be valid and they can continue a full search on that basis."
(Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series about security forces operations at Vance Air Force Base.)