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Turning a negative to a paw-sitive: Offutt MWD team navigates obstacles to welcome newest team member

in the foreground a Airman wearing a vest with K9 unit on the backside of vest, he standing in front of a military working dog sitting in front of the Airman

Staff Sgt. Blake Radey, 55th Security Forces Squadron dog handler, reinforces commands with military working dog Morty Nov. 19, 2019 while training on an 55th SFS obstacle course at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Full military funeral honors are given to MWDs that die while on active duty. Offutt Air Force Base, along with Bellevue, Sarpy County and Omaha Police Departments, held a procession through the installation in his honor. (U.S. Air Force photo by L. Cunningham)

military working dog at the very top of a two sided metal staircase at an obstacle course while his dog handler is behind the staircase giving commands to the dog

55th Security Forces Squadron military working dog Morty runs stairs at an obstacle course on Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 19, 2019 on command of his handler Staff Sgt. Blake Radey. Full military funeral honors are given to MWDs that die while on active duty. Offutt Air Force Base, along with Bellevue, Sarpy County and Omaha Police Departments, held a procession through the installation in his honor. (U.S. Air Force photo by L. Cunningham)

in the foreground a military working dog sitting with a security forces car in background, the dog is sitting perfectly centered, so the words on car read as Police on the left side of the photograph and the and the words Caution Military Working dog on the right side of the photograph

Military working dog Ram, sits for a photograph Sept. 1, 2020 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Ram is the newest member to the 55th Security Forces Squadron, Military Working Dog Section. (U.S. Air Force photo by L. Cunningham)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --

The 55th Security Forces Squadron navigated an unusual set of circumstances caused by the safety procedures enacted to protect against the spread of COVID-19, to welcome a new four legged member to their ranks.

Ram, a two-year old Belgian Malinois, became the newest member of the 55th SFS Military Working Dog Team as he replaced Sienna, who recently retired at the age of eight.

“Military working dogs provide a capability that no electronic or manual device can match,” said Staff Sgt. Aaron Catron, 55th SFS trainer and handler. “The ability to have a living breathing animal on calls will most of the time de-escalate situations.”

It is up to the Air Force program manager within the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program to assign each MWD based on the necessity of the base. Though the MWD team here was at the top of the list to receive a new dog, the logistics were a question given the current global pandemic.

Ram was waiting patiently following the successful completion of a 120-day Dog Training School at 341st Training Squadron, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where he was trained for obedience and detection and graduated with his certification as a narcotics dog.

Only 50% of these canines successfully pass the 341st TRS training program. The dogs, handlers and trainers from across all branches of the DOD, to include DOD civilians, train at the 341st TRS.

“When trained and certified, a MWD can cost up to approximately $41,000 initially. With additional training, feeding, boarding and medical costs the cost raises to $74,000 and up,” said Tech. Sgt. Mark Allen, 55th SFS kennel master. “Which when you consider the skills they have and how many lives they have saved, the cost is well worth it.”

To become a dog handler or trainer, you must first submit an application. If accepted, the handler and trainers attending a three-month course at the 341st TRS of training to become a handler, an additional one month course to become a trainer, and additional distance online training to become a kennel master.

“I became a handler because I was fascinated with how incredible the military work dogs are,” said Staff Sgt. Kathryn Malone, 55th SFS dog handler. “The dogs are amazing to work with and learn from.”

MWDs are traditionally given an unspoken rank, a rank which is one step higher than that of their handlers. This began as a custom to prevent the handler from mistreating their dog.

The kennel masters and trainers assign MWDs based on both the skill-set of each handler and each MWD. They take into consideration Permanent Change of Station, deployments and understanding that each handler and each MWD is different.

There are now currently, six MWDs assigned here and just as a regular two-legged Airmen go through medical clearance, so do the four-legged furry Airmen. These teams' overall mission is to "detect and detour". There are MWD teams both dog and handler in all DOD services that are currently deployed supporting global operations.

“Being a part of the MWD career field has been one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs of my career,” said Allen. “Most people just see a handler and a dog, they don’t really understand the impact that they have on missions around the world.”

They can work up ten to twelve years on active duty and be allowed to retire for deterioration of performance or medical reasons and be adopted by a vetted family.

"You are happy to see them retire and live the life of luxury," said Malone. "On the other hand, it's hard to say goodbye to your partner. It's a bittersweet moment for a dog to retire and a team to be split up."