By Ann Patton
Academy Spirit staff
Ready, set, sniff!
Explosive detection dogs from law enforcement agencies in Colorado went nose-to-nose Feb. 18-19 in a combined exercise of competition and learning experiences.
“I think everyone enjoyed it and had a good time,” said Academy kennel master Chris Jakubin. “They all took something away from it.”
Competitions opened Feb. 18 with sweeps in the Community Center auditorium for a “blank,” or location free of explosives, then moved to Falcon Stadium for sweeps in locker rooms and the press box. The eight teams of dogs and handlers moved to the Colorado Springs Airport Feb. 19 for sweeps of luggage, the terminal and vehicles.
“It was a great experience,” said Staff Sgt. John Havlik, a 10th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler who works with Fee, a German shepherd. “There was just improvement all around.”
Other dog handlers and canines from the Academy were Staff Sgts. Timothy Bailey and dog Roxie, Zerrick Shanks and dog Benga and Gary Resta and dog Odys. Also participating were Canine Deputy Shawn Billings and dog Gunny with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Officer Terry Brown and dog Van with the Colorado Department of Corrections, and Canine Officers Robert Strader and dog Rex and Clint Schumm and dog Grisa with the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Judges included John Baer, Eric Apodaca and Mr. Jakubin.
Overall top dog/handler honors for the competition went to Officer Strader and Rex, with Sergeant Shanks and Benga coming in second, followed by Gary Resta and Odys in third. All winners took home “bragging rights” only for their achievements.
Sergeant Resta said that how dogs are managed during a sweep depends on the dog. Some handlers prefer a “V” pattern, directing dogs to explore high and low locations, while others prefer a loose or off-leash pattern, generally used for more experienced canines.
Working dogs begin training as puppies using the classical conditioning approach with rewards for expected behaviors in incremental learning steps. Explosives detection dogs are trained to recognize several different explosive odors.
Sergeant Resta said dual-purpose dogs, or those trained to perform detection as well as work on law en-forcement patrol, are at the top of their class. He estimated only one dog out of a hundred makes the grade to do both.
Officer Strader said the exercise was a very valuable experience, especially because it gave him and Rex opportunities to practice in other locales than the airport where they are assigned. It also allowed for a welcome change of pace for both handler and dog.
Deputy Billings said the exercise was also a chance to simulate real-world situations.
“It’s the stress of not knowing if or where explosives are,” he said. In training situations, handlers may be told where explosives are present to refine handler-dog detection techniques.
It’s not all work and no play for the dogs, and handlers regard their dogs as both friends and working partners. Odys, a Belgian malanois, is both Sergeant Resta’s first and third working dog in the Air Force, and the pair have deployed together.
“We have to be close to build rapport,” he said, describing Odys as friendly and playful. “He’s like a little kid,” Sergeant Resta said.
While the Academy’s military working dogs are housed in the kennel, working dogs from other agencies often reside with their handlers, as in the case of Officer Strader and Rex.
“We have a very close relationship,” he said – close enough that Rex, eager to get to work in the morning, actually gets in the way when he puts on his uniform.
“Truly, he is an officer’s best friend,” he said.