‘Ruff’ duty: Coast Guard canine explosive detection teams
Posted by LT Katie Braynard, Sunday, March 13, 2016
Across the globe, more than 88,000 men and women come together to make up the Coast Guard workforce. Their duties are diverse – from inspecting cargo vessels to ensure safety at sea, to patrolling known drug transit zones to combat transnational organized criminal networks, or ensuring safety of navigable waterways by maintaining aids to navigation.
But there is one group within the Coast Guard so specialized that their mission remains the same, day in and day out, from the day they enter service to the day they retire.
Their role comes from Homeland Security Presidential Directive 19, which directs the Federal Government to prevent and protect against the use of explosives in the U.S. by using the most effective technologies, capabilities and search procedures to detect explosive devices.
While the majority of those who make up these teams are, in fact, Coast Guard men and women, some are not.
Currently, the Coast Guard employs 16 canine explosive detection teams, which are comprised of one Coast Guard working dog and one handler. The teams are located across the country at Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Teams and the Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Team.
It’s the unique capabilities that these detection dogs bring to the teams that make them so effective.
“When compared to mechanical methods of explosive detection, canines are the most reliable and real time defense against acts of terrorism,” said Lt. Craig Johnson, the canine explosive detection team program manager at Coast Guard Headquarters. “Their specialized capability to embark a vessel from small boats or helicopters makes them unique in DHS.”
And just like any other member of the Coast Guard, the K-9s begin their Coast Guard journey with a thorough training program to ensure they are ready for the career ahead of them.
Training: from regular pup to detection dog
Effective training lies at the center of each and every Coast Guard program, and the K-9 program is no exception.
When the Coast Guard procures a working dog, they are first sent to the Transportation Security Administration’s K-9 training center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in San Antonio, Texas.
The facility, which is recognized as the nation’s premier K9 explosive detection training center, provides training for local, state and federal agencies including the Federal Protective Service, the Secret Service, TSA, city police departments as well as the Coast Guard.
“With the Coast Guard being another DHS agency, the partnership is really important for us,” said Chris Shelton, supervisory air marshal in charge at the training center. “The partnership we have is a big benefit for all of us.”
Before the dogs even enter the training environment, they are screened to see where they may fit and how they will perform.
“In the procurement process, we look for several behavior traits that will signify that the dog will hunt and has a desire for some kind of prey object – a reward,” Diller said. “So we have a predisposition that the dog will work into the training program by the time we have the dog on the ground.”
For the Coast Guard K-9s and handlers, the training course is a 10-week, intensive course that initiates the bond built between the two. According to Danny Diller, supervisor of the training support unit at the center, the K-9s also undergo 10 to 15 weeks of pre-training, before they are paired with the handlers.
“The full process can run up to 25 weeks,” said Diller. “Odor imprinting is the first step. Once we have a pretty firm consensus that the dog is finding odor and responding to odor, then we start introducing all the transportation environments.”
From the start of the 10 week program, the handlers are there as well – working side by side with the K-9s they have been paired with.
The handlers kick off their training with a one-week classroom session that covers everything from veterinary care and transportation logistics to the equipment needed for both dogs and handlers. From there, they do a follow on week of obedience training followed by scenarios where they are taught the principles of explosive detection work.
Then comes certification.
“The handlers are put through the TSA certification process by the guidelines that we use for all our teams in the field,” Diller said. “They are graded as a team, and they will graduate as a team.”
From there, the handler and K-9 head out to a Coast Guard unit and form a canine explosive detection team.
A Coast Guardsman and his dog
A Coast Guard handler and his or her K-9 have a special bond – they work together, and at the end of the day, they go home together. They are family.
In fact, the dogs are matched to their handler based on this notion. TSA’s training center takes into consideration home environment, family situation and other personal factors when assigning a dog to a handler.
And once the detection dogs head off to their first Coast Guard unit? The handler will stay by their side throughout the entirety of their career, and the detection dog heads home with the handler each and every night.
Petty Officer 2nd Class James Grant, a maritime enforcement specialist currently stationed at Maritime Safety and Security Team Seattle, says that it’s the bond built between the dog and the handler that makes the work so rewarding.
Grant, who has been in the Coast Guard for 10 years, has been a handler for the last two years. His partner is Coast Guard K-9 Sonya. The two make up one of the canine explosive detection teams in Seattle and play a crucial role in port and maritime security for the region.
Grant says Sonya is so in tune with his daily routine, her demeanor changes based off the smallest details when she sees him in the mornings.
“The type of uniform I’m wearing, whether it’s my operational dress uniform or my advanced interdiction uniform…her whole demeanor changes,” said Grant. “So if I’m in my advanced interdiction uniform, she gets fired up and knows she’s going to do some fun stuff that day.”
“We’re 24/7 on call pretty much for any major threat,” Grant said.
Grant says that every MSST K-9 team has different responsibilities. In Seattle, they try to conduct at least one operation a week, and usually conduct sweeps of the local ferries or do vehicle sweeps at Coast Guard Base Seattle.
In addition to protecting the port, Grant and Sonya focus their efforts on training. While the dogs may undergo a 10-week program, the training is more of an ongoing continuum, due to the various environmental factors and port-specific responsibilities. The continual training environment also allows the handler to continually exercise the K-9 and get to know its behaviors.
Grant even said that to an untrained eye, it may look like the dog is responding to something that it’s really not. He said Sonya is a final response dog, so she sits when she detects odor. So in training scenarios, if Sonya sits, it’s up to Grant to determine whether she is sitting on explosive odor or on a different scent.
“Watching your own dog find odor is like looking at a sheet of music – every note has to be in sync for it to sound great,” he said. “To the handler, it’s literally art.”
Being a handler and developing this relationship with a detection dog is something Grant wouldn’t trade for anything.
“Without a doubt, I know I have the best job in the Coast Guard,” he said.
Unlike her human counterpart, Sonya won’t have the opportunity to serve the Coast Guard for 20 years. After about six years, the dogs have reached the end of their working life, and are ready for retirement.
While their work routine may change at this point, their home life normally doesn’t.
A forever home, a forever bond.
Chief Petty Officer Anthony Ross, a maritime enforcement specialist, worked with his K-9, Chiquita, for nine years. In that time, they served as canine explosive detection teams at both MSST San Francisco and MSST Los Angeles-Long Beach.
In that time, Ross and Chiquita focused on port security – doing sweeps of ferry and cruise ship terminals, searching containers at regulated facilities and working alongside port partners to keep the region safe from maritime threats.
After nine years, however, Chiquita’s service came to an end. For Ross, it was an easy decision on where she should live out the rest of her life – he adopted her.
“She’s my dog – it would be like having a dog for nine years…and taking them to the pound,” he said. “Nobody would do that to a regular dog, to their pet.”
For Chiquita, it wasn’t necessarily the easiest adjustment. Ross said that the day came that he left for work…and Chiquita didn’t go with him.
“She gave me that look,” he said. “That was hard for both of us. But she’s adjusting.”
As a handler, Ross gets to see first-hand the benefit that these K-9s add to the Coast Guard.
“They are a unique and rare resource,” said Ross. “They do something that no other machine or person, or really anything, can do. It’s a very low cost, budget friendly way to protect the American people. The detection capability that they possess is something that can’t be replicated anywhere else. They have a sense of dedication to their handlers that is really dedication to the country.”
For Ross, the question of Chiquita’s service isn’t a question – it’s a fact. One that he readily acknowledges.
“She served the country, she did her part,” said Ross. “She served me and worked for me, and now I feel like it’s my duty to protect her and take care of her for the rest of her life.”