SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
It's a simple, age-old act of classical conditioning--the dog finds what the master desires and the dog is rewarded.
In the case of Tommy, a three-year-old Belgian Malinoise assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo Joint Security Forces, the softball-sized round rubber toy is about all the reward he needs
During a recent evaluation, Tommy is released by his new handler, Air Force Staff Sgt. Eduard Morales. The 60 pound brindle-tinted animal trots through a building, sniffing under crannies and between sofa cushions and hitting pay dirt almost immediately as he finds the planted explosives. In turn, Tommy receives his handler' s praise; and a few moments with his beloved toy.
Kennel master Air Force Tech. Sgt. Cheryl Fullen explained that it takes heartfelt communication skills combined with hard work and training for both sides of the team to become an effective military working dog team; and it's that specific combination she's evaluating during the training session.
With clipboard in hand, she follows each MWD team through the search processes, noting not just the work of the handler, but the dog as well.
She assesses how each MWD team labors together, detecting areas teams need to fine-tune if the team's working relationship is going to grow.
Sergeant Fullen said because of the nature of the short-term assignment to Soto Cano Air Base, the MWD Airmen must work overtime building the dogs' trust and respect; actions that can take months and even years to foster at longer assignments.
"Usually it takes a handler partnered with a dog for longer than a year to make them a team--for them to really get to know one another," she said. "Since our dogs here see so many handlers over the years, it's vital that the handler spend as much time working with the dog and building that trust, which could include simply playing catch during downtime, taking a walk with the dog and just being a dog's master--a friend--not just the dog's handler."
Joint Security Forces Air Force Staff Sgt. Glenn Gordon said because he recently extended here for a year, the time he spends with his dog Houston--an eight year old German Sheppard--enables them to continue a rapport which only enhances the team's capability.
"Together we provide an valuable detection service, but our presence also provides a deterrent to bad guys, especially since Houston can exert more than 300 pounds of pressure per square inch in a bite -- enough to break an arm," he said.
Sergeant Fullen said Airmen in the security forces career field wanting to become handlers must meet certain rank and skill level requirements and receive a kennel master's nod of approval for selection to attend the 11-week long MWD handler's course at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
"Some people have a natural disposition to work with dogs, and it's important that a kennel master can see that a person is right for the job," she said.
Sergeant Fullen said key elements of the Joint Security Forces mission here is not only ensuring Soto Cano Air Base remains secure, but that JTF-Bravo supports U.S. interests in Central America through supporting counter drug efforts and programs of law enforcement agencies and regional allies, both well served by MWD teams.
"There's no better tool to assist with both aspects those missions than the three MWD teams assigned to JTFB," she said.