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Nellis hosts joint explosive detection training exercise for local canine units

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Laura Balch
  • Nellis Public Affairs
Military working dog handlers from the 99th Security Forces Squadron worked with 25 canine teams from the Las Vegas area during an explosive detection training exercise here Dec. 16.

Handlers and dogs from local casinos; Las Vegas Convention Center; Hoover Dam; Las Vegas Monorail; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Transportation Security Administration; Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and the U.S. Marshals Service participated in the exercise.

"There are so many handlers and dogs in the Las Vegas area; I think it's great for all of us to get together and train," said Jon Minnich, U.S. Marshals Service explosive detection canine handler.

This type of cooperative training usually occurs once a year. The purpose of a joint exercise is for the Nellis military working dog handlers to share training materials and techniques with the handlers from federal agencies and local units.

"The local canine units, like the ones working at the casinos, don't have access to what we have, so we try to invite them out here when we can," said Staff Sgt. Kennedy Wilkinson, 99th Security Forces military working dog handler.

This particular exercise involved 19 training aids, including 250 pounds of explosives, which were placed around the exercise course. The dogs' job is to search for and detect a hidden training aid and signal to their handlers that an explosive object is nearby. Once the dogs detect an aid, they are rewarded by their handlers and move on to the next search.

To a human, one training aid is considered to have one odor. To a dog, each training aid contains hundreds, if not thousands, of individual odors. Thus, by using a relatively small number of training aids, dogs are taught to recognize tens of thousands of individual odors.

"The easiest way to explain the dogs' heightened sense of smell is to use the example of smelling a pizza," Sergeant Wilkinson explained. "To a human, a pizza has one odor: the smell of pizza. To a dog, a pizza has many odors: the smell of cheese, bread, sauce, pepperoni, and so on."

Honing the dogs' abilities to recognize different scents is something the handlers are constantly practicing. During this particular exercise, however, the focus was on the dogs' behaviors.

"All of our military dogs are passive responders, so they sit or lay down when they detect something," Sergeant Wilkinson said. "Some of dogs in the local units tend to respond aggressively; they paw and lick at the training aid, which is not what we want."

The concern with the dogs' aggressive responses is that the dogs may disturb the item they have detected, which could put everyone in danger. Therefore, it is important that all the dogs learn to detect the source of the scent while minimizing their contact with their surroundings.

"When the dog begins pushing his nose into the training aid, or the location in which the aid is hidden, the handler will tell him to calm down and go easy so he doesn't disturb anything," said Staff Sgt. Bruce Martinez, 99th SFS military working dog handler. "One of the dogs from a local unit has been having a tough time adjusting to this behavior modification, so we have invited that handler to come back again to work with us some more."

This bond between the military, federal and local canine units has existed for many years and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

"We have an awesome relationship with Nellis," said Lauren Marakas, senior special agent canine handler from ATF. "I have been coming here since 2005 and I love working with the military. All the people out here are in the same fight; we're all looking for the same things. The private industries benefit so much from this and it's great that the Air Force makes this training available to so many canine units."

There are currently six bomb dogs and one drug dog stationed at Nellis. The dogs and their handlers train and perform real-world searches year-round. For additional information about the military working dogs, contact Staff Sgt. Kennedy Wilkinson at 652-6036.