SAN ANTONIO – The 341st Training Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland has the mission of operating the Military Working Dogs Program for the Air Force.
"I not only have human instructors, but I have dog instructors teach our students, as well," Matthew Kowalski, 341st Training Squadron commander, said.
There are several training areas at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and Medina Training Annex.
"The schoolhouse is in charge of training handlers, kennel masters and trainers for the entire Department of Defense. That foundational level starts right here at Lackland," Kowalski said.
Currently, there are more than 800 dogs.
"So, when you look at dog training from a dog training perspective, there are two modalities that we train. First one is, detection – that really, what we like to call detection, the chess game. It's very mental. It’s very focused for the handler to see that slight change of behavior when that dog recognizes that a drug or explosive is present," Kowalski said.
"It can be a very unique change to every dog and the handler needs to be able to recognize what that change in behavior is. It might be very slight. It’s a turn of a head. It’s wagging of a tail. There is a response that we call a final response that the dog will sit when it's trained to find whether it's narcotics or explosives," he said.
Kowalski said the second training is physical.
"The other side of (it) is what you see on maybe "Live PD" or "Cops" at night – chasing the bad guy, doing the bite work. That bite work is very physical. It's physical for the dog. It's physical for the trainer. My trainers get a lot of aches and pains because it is tough work catching a 60- to 80-pound German shepherd or a Belgian Malinois on that wrap," Kowalski said.
Kowalski said dogs are trained differently depending on where they will be placed.
"The Department of Homeland Security and (the Transportation Security Administration) – their program is focused on what's called single-purposes dogs. Those are dogs (whose) only mission is detection, sniffing out explosives," Kowalski said. "The Department of Defense – our mission is a little bit different depending on which service the dogs go into, in which mission set they're aligned to. Some dogs will be narcotics dogs, looking for drugs. Some dogs (will be) explosive dogs, looking for bombs and explosives.
"For the Marine courses, (they are) an off-leash asset, where a lot of dogs in the DOD are on leash and they're looking on roadsides for explosives and working with teams that are moving around a little bit different than a dog that you would see maybe at the front gate or a search pit," he said.
Handlers from all branches go through training at the Medina location.
The handler students train for about 11 weeks and the military working dog students train for about six months.
"The dog has to do the stairs, the catwalk, so they can just navigate some stairs, a narrow path for the catwalk, hurdles, different heights – just to compare and, as they go through operation, to make sure they'll jump over objects, (that) they don't have any issues with that. Jumping through a window. – we have the window out here, kind of simulates going through any type of window, vehicle, building, anything of the sort. We have tunnels. Dogs have to crawl through different variances, different lengths of tunnels. They have three different ones they have to navigate, then a frame where they climb an incline and they come down an incline without issues,” Cody Kassebaum, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Military Working Dog Course Patrol Block, said.
Kassebaum has been a dog handler for seven years. He said it is not just about the training, but also building a bond with the military working dogs.
"When we start paying them, we start giving them a lot of rewards, a lot of affection. The dogs start pairing up with the individual. They start coming back to him a lot more," Kassebaum said.
Kassebaum said he created a special bond with one dog in particular.
"We worked for two years together, out in the operational. He was a narcotics dog. We're the only certified narcotics team on my base for a little over a year. So we did a lot of call-outs, stuff like that," Kassebaum said.
The military working dog is now retired and lives with Kassebaum's family, he said.
"He's with me all the time. My wife, my kids can be playing with him. Then he sees me come home from work. He doesn't care what's going on. He'll stop eating, stop play with them and come over and just welcome me home," Kassebaum said.
According to officials at JBSA-Lackland, the dogs that graduate work around the world. The ones that don’t graduate are adopted or given to another agency if they meet that agency's needs.