DOD Puppy Program

Published in Airman Magazine, Dec 2003

Jackson was born at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, atop sheets bearing the Wilford Hall Medical Center monogram. He’ll probably never meet his father. Dear ol’ dad was on temporary duty in Southwest Asia when he was born, and, although he’s back in town, he doesn’t visit. Mom is still around, but Jackson will probably never see her again, because several weeks after his birth, he and his six siblings were placed in different foster homes. But don’t feel sorry for Jackson. He has a bright future and a full-time job awaiting him.

Even though Jackson’s humble beginnings sound like something out of a Dickens novel, it’s all part of a plan. Jackson is a military working dog in training and was bred and born as part of the Department of Defense Puppy Program at Lackland. This “puppy program” provides the military with dogs specifically for patrol and explosive detection. The goal is to augment the supply of dogs still being purchased from vendors with additional top-quality dogs. Lacy Smith, the puppy program manager, believes that breeding puppies in-house will produce an exceptional dog. “ We’re hoping to form a more elite dog which will work longer and have less medical problems,” Smith said. “Our dogs will work longer because they enter training at a younger age and ship to the field at a younger age.”

The breeding program is also filling an increased need for dogs that has steadfastly picked up, especially in the last year and a half. “ Since 9-11 the demand for dogs has just gone through the roof,” Smith said. “Just this year we needed 300-plus dogs. If we rely solely on vendors, we’re going to run short. Hopefully, this breeding program can fill that gap for us.” The program has produced nearly 110 Belgian Malinois puppies since its start in 1999. Of those, about 47 percent have gone on to successful military careers.

“ The military has very stringent criteria for dogs, and it’s really difficult to make a military working dog,” said Smith, whose background is in psychology with an emphasis in animal behavior. Making a high-quality military working dog begins before birth by selecting the right parents.
“ Parents are handpicked for their excellence in genetics — medically and behaviorally,” Smith explained. “We want a dog which has good eyes, excellent hips, good elbows and comes from a really nice working pedigree going back generations. We also test for nerves, detection behavior and patrol ability.”

Once the match is made, the dogs are allowed to breed naturally, if possible, or through artificial insemination. In Jackson’s case, his mother, Urelia, was artificially inseminated by Aaslan. Although Urelia is untrained and was purchased solely for breeding because of her bloodlines, Aaslan was an “A” litter puppy, from one of the first litters born at Lackland in March 1999. His physical attributes and work ethic have made him a stud of choice. “ You can’t ask for more dog than Aaslan,” Smith said.

After birth, the puppies spend quality time with their mother learning how to just be dogs. At 6 weeks old, humans start playing and socializing with them. While in the whelping kennel, the puppies are exposed to various objects and sounds to prepare them for facing the world in which they’ll be working. “ At a very early age, we’ll present them with new objects every day,” said Stewart Hilliard, a civilian psychologist and behavioral specialist. “For example, we’ll take a wheelbarrow in, let them smell it, climb on it and get to know it. Then the next day we may take in a basketball and let them explore that. The end goal is to develop extremely confident and bold adult dogs.” Taped noise also plays in the background to get the puppies used to outside sounds they’ll hear such as loud machines, vacuum cleaners and music, Hilliard said. “ More than anything else, it’s about socialization and habitualization to the environment,’’ he said. “ We start testing at 8 weeks,” Smith explained. “What we’re looking for is dogs which have a drive to possess objects, whether it be a plastic bottle, stuffed toy, a jingle ball or rolled up towels. Puppies which, when you throw [an object], want to chase it and come back to you, and they keep their entire mouth on that object.” Smith looks for dogs which show a lot of possession and boldness traits, and are not nervous or afraid of sounds.

At 9 weeks old, the puppies go to foster families to grow up some. The main duty of a foster family is to love the puppy in their charge. “ Foster families are expected to spend time with the dog, raise it much like a family pet with the exception that our puppy needs to be exposed environmentally to a lot of different areas,” Smith said. “So where a family might leave their pet at home when they go out, we want our puppy to go with them.” That includes taking the puppies to sporting events, factories, warehouses or anywhere there are strange noises, slick floors and dark spaces. Basically, Hilliard said, the goal is to expose the puppies to as much as possible, plus show them a good time.
Each puppy has an ID card and vest identifying it as a military working dog in training. Smith is very particular about who becomes a foster family to “her puppies.” Her uncanny ability to name — and often recognize — every puppy born, is testament to her dedication to their care. “ I can be very picky about my puppies,” Smith said. “I’m not going to put a dog in a home that I think I might have to pull it out of later because of a problem.” She’s only pulled a puppy twice; each time making her more particular with the next applicant. 

Extensive instructions are mailed out with each application. After a home visit, interview and Smith’s blessing, the foster family must sign a contract. “ They sign a contract stating that they’ll care for the dogs the way I ask them to, feed the dog what I provide — no table scraps — and will be held responsible if I find them negligent or if someone hurts my dog,” Smith explained. If everything is going on track, puppies stay with the families until they’re 7 months old. If they’re meeting their potential, then they return to Lackland for pre-training. “ For some dogs, if we see they have potential and they need a little more time before entering pre-training, we might leave them with families for up to 9 months old,” Smith said.

All military working dogs are trained for dual purposes — patrol and detection. If a puppy has the skills and desire to be a military working dog, the signs will appear in the first year, especially during pre-training. “ Patrol dogs need to want to protect their handlers and themselves,” Smith explained. “We want to make sure that if somebody is really serious about attacking the handler, our puppy is going to withstand the threat of someone coming directly at him, head-first, screaming and shouting, so we do a lot of that during pre-training to make sure they stand their ground.”

 Smith said there’s a heavy emphasis on detection now, especially explosives. A puppy with strong sniffer-dog potential is one who strives for a reward. “ All dogs have an intense sense of smell, and every dog likes to sniff,” Smith said. “The trick is getting them to use it as you need it. Every dog will sniff the ground, but can we get this dog who has enough drive for the ball to focus on what we’re asking, that is, on command to sniff here, and here, and here? They learn that if they detect a particular odor, they’re going to get their ball if they tell us where it is. “ You can’t ask dogs to work for 45 minutes if they don’t want that ball badly enough, because they aren’t going to do it.” “ We do everything to increase the dog’s desire to chase balls, play with objects and search for objects,” Hilliard said. “We need to develop their drive.” 

Although Jackson is showing all the signs of following in his father’s pawsteps, good breeding doesn’t guarantee every puppy will be a top dog. Hilliard said the puppies have to be born with drive; it can’t be taught. Puppies which don’t make the cut are adopted out to private families or other agencies. Glock, who made it to the 11-month mark, didn’t meet the high standards of a military working dog and was finally cut. Smith says he did show enough potential for police work and is currently making a north Texas police department very happy.

If a professional career is just not in the cards, Smith said there’s always private life. “ All of our dogs end up having really good lives even if they don’t make the program,” Smith said. “If they fail out at 7 months, and they don’t want to do anything, not even chase a ball, they get to go lay on somebody’s carpet for the rest of their lives.”

Currently, most dogs cut from the program are ending up in adoptive homes rather than full-time jobs. Officials are trying to figure out the fiscal benefits of the program: How much money is saved because these puppies are bred for 12 years of service instead of 10? How much is saved because the pre-trained puppies only need 50 days of intense training instead of 120?

“ I think if you look at a very large scale, you’ll see that it saves quite a bit of money,” Smith said. But for Smith, it’s not just about the money. She wants to see the program grow. “ I want to see military units looking forward to receiving our puppies because they know the puppies are better quality,” she said. “I want the military to support the program. I don’t want to keep telling people that [we produce] a better dog, I want them to see it and believe it for themselves.”

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