December 14, 2011

Working Animals: Meet Metro Airport’s K9 Unit

Officer Farmer and her K-9 at Metro Aiport

The Ann Arbor Animal Hospital serves as the routine wellness veterinary option for Detroit Metro Airport’s K-9 unit. The Ann Arbor Animal Hospital is also where they take their canines for emergencies. This past October, one of the members of their K-9 unit, “Jasko”, took his responsibilities a little too far when he ingested a foreign object. The K-9  did very well post-op after Dr. Janet Figarra removed the obstruction from his intestines, and was discharged shortly thereafter.

Three members of Metro Airport's K-9 Unit

The hospital also cares for the Ann Arbor Police Department’s K-9s which got us thinking of these highly trained dogs and their handlers. In Jasko’s case, where did he come from, what is his role as an airport K-9, and do others have similar questions? So, building on our own curiosity, we’ve decided to do a series on working “pets” who happen to be patients at the hospital with our first post being Airport K-9s. We’d also like to take a moment to thank MetroAirport’s Sergeant McKernan for allowing the hospital access to his team of officers:

What breeds of dog are used?

We use specially trained German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Belgian Malanois.

 How do you find or recruit dogs for your program?

The Labrador Retrievers are bred at the Lackland Air Force Base, located in San Antonio, TX. The German Shepherds and Malanois are imported from overseas, primarily Europe.

Do you buy trained adult dogs or young dogs that you train?

The dogs are trained by Lackland Air Force Base’s 341st Training Squadron. We start with young adults averaging about 2 years old that have basic training then they spend 4 months with an individual handler to learn specifics and develop technique with that handler.

Are you required to re-certify your dogs? If yes, how often?

The dogs are required to go through a challenging annual recertification process with the Federal Government. Specially trained instructors assess the dog through a series of tests and exercises to make sure they perform in the field as intended.

How do you stay abreast of new threats and how does that translate to new and different training?

Each K-9, through the annual recertification we just talked about, must be tested and pass 10-12 categories of specific explosives to remain current. If the K-9 is found to be deficient in one of the areas than further training occurs so that the dog performs to the standard.

Are Metro Airport’s K-9s trained for one mission, i.e., explosives, or are they trained for multiple missions, i.e., drugs, explosives, agriculture products, etc.?

These dogs are trained for explosives only. The reason we do this is that trained dogs signal when they find something, but a handler would have no way of knowing whether the dog was signaling for drugs or explosives. Because of the dangerous nature of explosives, the handlers must know that this is what the dog has found so the proper course of action can be taken.

What medical conditions or on-the-job hazards do these dogs develop or encounter?

Medical problems are rare because our K-9’s are well screened for genetic problems, are kept current on preventative health exams and treatments, and because we go to great lengths to make sure they are healthy and safe while working in the field. Also, because of the extensive screening process before and during training, the guidelines for feeding, and the veterinary care they receive during their service, these dogs are exceptionally strong and healthy. Much more so than the average pet dog.

Speaking of feeding, what do you feed your dogs?

We feed them a good quality, high protein food suitable for an active working dog (the officer did not share what brand in order to stay product neutral from an endorsement perspective).

Where do the K-9’s stay when they aren’t on patrol?

The dogs live with us, their handler, day and night. My dog is essentially my partner.

So what’s a day-off like for your K-9? Where does he stay and what do they do when they’re able to leave “work”?

Because these are working animals with a very important job their life isn’t like a typical family pet. The handler’s home is just a place for the dog to sleep and eat when it is not at work. They do not live there as pets. These dogs need to view work as the “fun” part of their day, so they are eager to leave the home and do their job. When the handler starts to put the uniform on their dog becomes excited and is ready to go to work.

Do the Metro K-9’s have different handlers or are they assigned to one, specific officer?

Yes, each K-9 is assigned to a specific handler. The bond becomes very strong between us. The handler and their dog get to know the other really well which helps us to be more effective when we’re doing our job.

How many hours per week does a dog work?

Dogs work about 27 out of the 40 hours that the handler works per week.

How do you determine if a dog is successful and do you track “success statistics”?

We do track statistics and the dog continues training/practicing 5-8 days per month.

What is a dog’s length of service?

The length of service varies from dog to dog and there isn’t a retirement age. It’s really a judgment call based on the dog’s physical health and ability to work. Typically the length of service runs until a dog is too old or otherwise unable to work.

What happens to them when it is time to retire?

They’re retired and live with their handler as a pet. This can be hard on a retired dog that still wants to go to work and have “fun”. So, we try to finds things to keep them busy so they feel like they still have a job.

What funny stories can you share with us while you were on a patrol with a K-9?

Canine flatulence seems to be a big problem with these dogs, and since they’re riding around in a patrol car with the officer, the smell is quite concentrated.

What else would you like readers to know?

These K-9s are employed as working dogs and they are not pets. (They can only become pets after they retire, as above). Therefore, please remember when you see a working K-9 to let working dogs do their job. Do not interrupt, try to pet, or otherwise distract them from their job. The goal of the force is to maintain high visibility and awareness in public and to also deter crime.

Posted in Blog, December 14th, 2011 | David

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