By Karen Abeyasekere, 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 19, 2010
RAF MILDENHALL, England -- The 100th Security Forces Squadron's Military Working Dog section recently acquired a new "puppy" in their pack - but these dogs aren't for petting.
MWD Vvonya, a Belgian Malinois, is the first female Puppy Program dog owned by the 100th SFS, joining MWD Ootto, also a Belgian Mallinois, who arrived at Mildenhall in 2006 as the section's very first Puppy Program MWD.
Born, bred and initially trained at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, the 23-month-old military working dog was just over a year old when she first started her initial training.
The Puppy Program was started at Lackland - where all Department of Defense MWDs are trained - to allow the military to breed its own dogs, cut costs and produce a better-trained asset.
"It gives hands-on training from day one as a puppy, and the Air Force can track their progression of being socialized," said Staff Sgt. Ralph Conklin, 100th SFS military working dog trainer.
He explained that volunteers at Lackland take the dogs into their homes for up to a year to socialize them around family members.
"They'll also take them to the grocery store, shopping malls, or movie theaters so they get to be around mass amounts of people and get used to different environments; basically, anywhere they want to go, they can take the dogs with them," Sergeant Conklin said.
All Puppy Program dogs have a double letter designation at the start of their name to identify them as the specialist animals.
Once trained and ready to head to their new home station, a handler will travel to Lackland to personally pick up and escort the dog home.
The working dogs have to meet the same Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (more commonly known as DEFRA) requirements as pets. They have to be microchipped, have a pet passport and up-to-date shots, and have all their approved paperwork from the vet six months prior to their scheduled departure.
MWD Vvonya recently arrived at RAF Mildenhall, and her handler, Staff Sgt. Raymond McMahon, arrived right before her. He had two dogs to choose from.
"I immediately chose Vvonya after walking into the kennels and seeing her for the first time," Sergeant McMahon said. "She definitely has her own personality. If she doesn't know you, she can get kind of squirly.
"But she's very playful, loving - and very hyper! She gets excited when I go out to the kennels in the morning. She can't wait to get out and get going."
Only experienced handlers get brand-new dogs, and new handlers cannot be paired up with new dogs, as neither would have sufficient knowledge or training to do their job properly.
Vvonya and the other military working dogs are now being trained for obedience using a new method known as clear signals training. The CST method is based on three important ideas: teaching the dog to understand commands using rewards rather than physical force; establishing clear communication so the dog knows exactly what its handler is asking of it, and use compulsion (constraint) only when necessary.
All MWDs have training every day, including attack training, when one of the 100th SFS members dresses up in a bite suit or wears a bite sleeve. That person then takes the role of the "bad guy," and following commands from the handler, the dog will chase that person, halting immediately when called off by the handler.
However, the dog sits just inches from the "bad guy," letting him know it will instantly bite on command - and the MWD isn't bothered where it bites.
As a reward at the end of the training, once the dog has bitten onto the bite sleeve, the 100th SFS member wearing it then slips it off and lets the dog carry it off in its mouth (complete with a big grin on its face!) as a reward for succeeding in the training.
Vvonya's handler, Sergeant McMahon, said his teammate certainly has a mind of her own when it comes to training.
"She knows it, but she plays the game," he said. "She'll learn it quickly, but pretends to me, 'Oh, I don't know how to do that ... ' - she's a pain, but I love her."
Sergeant McMahon said Vvonya's favorite thing to do is play, especially center-line drills.
"I throw her a toy and she brings it back to me. I'll throw her another toy, and she brings that one back, and so it goes on, just to get some energy out of her."
Vvonya is not 2 until August, which means she's still at the puppy stage right now, and hasn't quite completed the training which will allow her to fulfill all her duties properly.
Most of her day consists of aggression and detection training, along with play time.
"But you can tell she's going to be a good dog when she gets out of the puppy stage," Sergeant McMahon said proudly of his charge.
Seeing the speed at which the dogs attack can be very frightening, especially when standing close by. But within a few seconds, when the handler is praising the dog, it looks as friendly as a pet.
However, these dogs aren't pets, and nobody but the handlers and a small handful of people who work with them on a very regular basis can go near them without being bitten - a misconception when people see the dogs off base at events in the local community.
"We've seen parents let their children run up to the dogs to pet them, but when the dogs see this, they don't differentiate between an adult and a child - all they see is a person coming at them. They're trained to attack and protect their handler at all costs, and it can be a sticky situation sometimes," Sergeant Conklin said.
"It really concerns me when I tell parents to please keep their child well away from the military working dog, but they still think it's okay for them to try and pet it - it's absolutely not," he added.
MWD handlers are not allowed to let anyone, other than other K-9 personnel, touch their military working dogs.
"I can't stress enough the importance of not approaching military working dogs, or attempting to touch or pet them," Sergeant Conklin said.