Robins’ military working dogs vital part of the security team at home, war Published Sept. 3, 2009 By Wayne Crenshaw 78 ABW/PA ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- In a small building near Luna Lake is the residence of seven important members of Team Robins. They are the K-9 dog team, made up of six German shepherds and one Belgian Malinois. The animals serve a variety of functions, with two of the most significant being the sniffing out of explosives and illegal drugs. Tech. Sgt. Derrick Lee, the kennel master, said the dogs serve a vital role in the military, not just on base but also on deployment. He and his dog have deployed to Iraq, finding two improvised explosive devices and a buried weapons cache. While the dogs are used on combat patrols and convoys, he said, one of their most important jobs is to search for explosives in vehicles entering forward operating bases. "The dogs are very important for the simple fact that we do rely on a lot of foreigners to bring supplies into the base," Sergeant Lee said. "They can sweep the vehicle to make sure no explosives are present." Even if the dogs don't find anything, he said, they serve as an effective visual deterrent for anyone attempting to enter a base with explosives or drugs. In a convoy, if anything looks suspicious ahead, a dog team can be called to search the area before the unit moves forward. In addition to Sergeant Lee, the kennel has one trainer and seven handlers. The handlers go through a 3-month course at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, which is also where the dogs get initial training. Additional training for the dogs is done at Robins. Senior Airman Jamie Wright, a dog handler, recently returned from a deployment in Iraq with a 4-year old German shepherd named Beny. She had a deployment prior to becoming a handler and found it significantly different to be deployed with a dog. There were no kennels, so the dog stayed with her at all times. One benefit of her job, she said, is that having a dog can provide a degree of stress-relief in the combat zone. "It was definitely a different opportunity to be able to stay with a dog for six months in an enclosed area, but I definitely enjoyed having a dog around, and having somebody to come home to at night," she said. "It's like having a pet with you." But no matter how close a dog and a handler might become, she said she would not hesitate when the time might come to send her dog into a dangerous situation. "Even though that's your dog and you are with it all the time, it's still a military working dog and we have a job to do," she said. The dogs are also trained to attack, not necessarily with the intent of injuring someone but to hold the suspect. The dogs don't just deploy with Air Force units. Sergeant Lee's last deployment was with a group of Marines, and he currently has a dog team deployed with an Army Special Forces team. The dogs at Robins are getting some better accommodations. They already have a new $20,000 air-conditioned trailer that will hold all of the dogs in the event of an emergency. A new $1.3 million kennel has also been built next to the current kennel, but it is awaiting some finishing touches before it can be occupied. It will be a big step up for the dogs, with better pens and a better cleaning and ventilation system. Once that move is made, the current kennel will be renovated for use as offices. Although Sergeant Lee said they once had a dog that remained effective up until 14 years of age, it's more likely that working dogs usefulness will decline after a few years of duty. When that happens, he said, they try to find a good home for the dog, assuming it is not aggressive, and let it live out the rest of its life as a pet. Not surprisingly, Sergeant Lee said a key quality of a good handler is someone who likes dogs. Dogs also have an acute sense of visual cues, so someone who is animated may be better able to communicate with a dog than a reserved "tough guy." All in all, Sergeant Lee said, a well-trained dog is good to have when danger is lurking. "I think a dog is an awesome partner," he said. "You can't always say what a human being will do. A dog will never hesitate but a human being may, depending on the situation."