By Master Sgt. April Lapetoda
380th Air Expeditionary Wing
UNDISCLOSED LOCATION — The passion and love between a military working dog and their handler is generally understood, but not always evident.
That is not the case for Senior Airman Samantha Baker and her partner for the past four months, MWD Penny.
The two are often seen walking around the base together. Baker carries Penny up makeshift stairs so that her paws don’t get stuck. And, instead of working strict patrol and obedience training, the two are often in the training area engaging in a game of catch with lots of hugs, love and praise after.
Not only does Baker’s and Penny’s relationship look different from that of your average military working dog and handler, it is different.
One of the main factors for the difference in their relationship is Penny’s breed — she’s a “fox red” Labrador.
“The relationship between the normal German shepherd or Belgian Malinois military working dog and their handler is usually one built on a foundation of strict routine and a balance of work and play as that is what those breeds need,” said Staff Sgt. James Worley, who is a military working dog handler deployed to the 380th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron here.
“In sessions with a German shepherd or Belgian Malinois, when a handler gives the dog a sharp verbal correction for not performing a task as they should, those dogs will keep working,” he continued. “If Penny were to be given the same type of negative feedback, it could potentially make her shut down mentally and be counterproductive to the training session,”
Another reason for the difference is that Penny wasn’t trained in traditional military working dog fashion — she was trained as an U.S. Marine Corps independent detector dog.
During her service with the Marines, Penny served in Afghanistan for two consecutive years. While there, she detected the scent of explosives and alerted her handler as part of her daily job.
When the requirement for independent detector dogs dropped in 2012, Marine Corps Systems Command transferred nearly 400 dogs to federal, state, local and municipal organizations. All of the dogs who were not transferred were adopted by families. During this time, Penny found her new home with the 21st Security Forces Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
During her first year there, Penny worked with two handlers before being partnered with Baker.
The differences that now make Baker and Penny’s partnership unique presented challenges in the beginning.
“During (technical training), they teach us primarily to work with Belgian Malinois and German shepherds,” said Baker, who is originally from Derby, Kan. “It’s different from training in that Penny’s motivation to work is different from those breeds. The way she interacts to the environment and to stimuli is different.
“Most dogs are motivated and want their toy,” she continued. “She’s not so much motivated by wanting her toy, but by wanting to make me happy.”
Adding to the learning curve of how to interact with her new partner, Baker also had to learn a new set of commands to give her new partner, which were different from those that she learned in her Air Force training.
To do so, Baker watched videos to learn how independent detector dogs were given commands and how to interact with her new partner.
Baker also devoted much of her time off to her new partner.
“There were lots of walks and not leaving her in her kennel,” she said. “I devoted my time to finding out what makes her happy.”
“(Baker) still has to have the balance of work and play, but she also has to build rapport through more fun-based activities like walks and fetch instead of regimented obedience and bite work,” said Worley.
After much effort to develop their relationship and partnership, Baker said “Penny developed trust and love for me. She got used to how I am and how best she can make me happy. I can’t treat her like I would a Malinois or shepherd, so I tailored all of my actions to her and she flourished under it.”
The partners deployed to the 380 ESFS together in January 2014 where Penny now serves as a frontline detection dog and Baker serves as her handler. They will continue to spend the next several months here helping protect others from contraband items entering the base.
“She helps by giving the people here peace of mind,” said Baker, who has served in the Air Force for three and a half years. “She’s not only here to protect me, but every person on this base.”
“At first, our partnership was a learning curve, because Penny is so different,” said Baker. “But, now we’ve really bonded. We really are a true team with an unbreakable bond. I trust this dog every day with my life. I could do this for years and I really hope to.”