Dogs are trained for specific in-the-field jobs including sniffing out bombs, recovering cadavers, protecting police and military, enforcing anti-terrorism initiatives, locating missing persons, detecting forensic evidence and discovering hidden narcotics.
While these alpha dogs are often a Working Group breed, not every German Shepherd is a solid candidate. They must demonstrate the right drive, disposition, social skills, and nerve strength to handle the challenges that may come their way. Working dogs rise to the task, despite noise and fatigue. These brave animals are known to ignore personal injury – like cuts, scrapes and open wounds – in the line of duty. They not only persist through extreme temperatures but, with restricted scent, can successfully identify the odor of a cadaver.
According to Ann Christensen, National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) Canine Committee Chair, working dogs will persist despite rain, wind, lava rock, hot pavement, crowded cities and unstable buildings in order to complete the task at hand.
NASAR uses a lot of the same training methods that law enforcement might employ when teaching a dog to detect narcotics or explosives. "First, the dog is taught to recognize the target odor," Christensen says. "Then it is taught a final response or indication so the dog can tell the handler when it's been located. Training works on teaching the dog to search in various environments and around multiple distractions without losing focus." While many civilians train dogs with food rewards, Christensen prefers to reward with a toy, game of tug, or retrieve when they find what they are trained to locate. "Civilian handlers normally plan on about 500 hours of trained to get a dog trained, certified and ready for deployment," she explains. "But experienced trainers can do it in less time." Search and rescue dog teams are dispatched across the globe, with multiple teams throughout the United States and Canada.
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Vohne Liche Kennels, a full service K-9 training facility founded by United States Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Kenneth Licklider two decades ago, has trained police and military service dogs for more than 5,000 law enforcement and government agencies. They train their dogs on a 600-plus acre property in Indiana, complete with an obstacle course and workout gym. Off-site training sessions include field trips to hotels, schools, impound lots and jails.
[Meet the guys behind Vohne Liche Kennels]
"Obedience is on and off lead to heal, sit, stay, come and down," says Licklider, of VLK training methods. Handlers maintain full control of the dog at all times, and use positive motivation techniques (like a toy) as an associate reward. They designed agility training to increase the animal's confidence in a myriad of environments, and apprehension is based on five phases of control. "Tracking [training] is based on following a combination of human skin cells and disturbed vegetation," Licklider explains. "We begin by tracking footsteps, but gradually encourage the dog to trail the suspect lifting their head, utilizing both ground and airborne scent. All substance detection is imprinted the same way with the dogs learning to locate a particular scent then respond passively. Building and Area searches teach the dogs to locate a suspect using airborne scent in a confined area whether it be inside a building or within a cordoned off perimeter."
Dogs in the Field
Kathy Holbert of West Virginia took her personal dog, Strega, as a civilian contractor to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009-2010. Strega was one of the few human remains detection dogs, tasked with trying to recover missing United States military and civilians. Led by the promise of 'no one left behind,' Holbert and Strega entered into difficult and dangerous situations.
"The most memorable mission was a water search in the Morghab River, near the Turkmenistan border in Afghanistan, where two paratroopers had drowned trying to recover a miss[ed] drop of supplies," Holbert shared. "The recovery efforts were in a highly volatile area, where several other deaths had occurred trying to make recovery. One victim was recovered by a well-trained team of British divers before Strega arrived, quite a bit away from the entry point. The army command wanted to expand the search area based on that recovery, which would have exposed our troops to more danger." But Strega alerted on a hydraulic boil, and her consistent and confident alerts ultimately changed the search direction, and the diving team recovered the victims within days. Had they extended the search area as originally planned, the searchers would have been exposed to greater dangers – Strega's training and mission experience were a life-saving asset to the search and rescue team. "It is rare that a dog trained to find the dead ends up saving the living, but I feel that is exactly what we did there," says Holbert.
One Vohne Liche-trained canine located a missing three-year-old child in a cornfield during the freezing winter after all the other searchers had given up, and ultimately saved the child's life, while another one alerted military to the presence of explosives just prior to an assault team going through a door, saving the entire squad.
In a new series on the Nat Geo WILD, Alpha Dogs, camera crews follow Ken Licklider and his handlers as they work tirelessly to train dogs for police and military personnel across the globe. Tune into the premiere on Friday, February 8 at 9:00 PM EST!
[Watch a preview of Alpha Dogs]