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Posted 12/13/2013

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By Nancy J. Sticht
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District


Quickly walking across a field dotted with red flags, Don is focused on only one goal – finding explosives that may be buried underground, so they can be removed before they cause harm. He performed similar duties during his tour in Afghanistan, and although his work in Florida is being conducted in a very different environment, it is equally important in contributing to public safety.

As the breeze shifts, rustling the trees and ruffling the little red flags, Don’s supervisor, Pete, announces, “He’s got it.” Within seconds, Don leads his partner, Roger, to one of the flags, where he sits and awaits confirmation that he has indeed found his target.  

Don is a five-year-old German Shepherd, one of several explosive detection dogs that are working alongside their handlers at the Mullet Key Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS) at Fort DeSoto Park in Pinellas County near St. Petersburg, Fla. They are members of American K-9 Detection Services, LLC (AMK9) of Lake Mary, Fla., a sub-contractor to PIKA-Pirnie, JV. 

PIKA-Pirnie, JV is the prime contractor currently conducting a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS) on behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District to determine the nature and extent of anything remaining at the FUDS from the military’s use of the site as a bombing and gunnery range during World War II.   

During a RI/FS, crews traditionally use digital metal detectors on paths (called transects) and blocks (called grids) to map buried metallic objects.  After carefully analyzing the collected data, potential targets are identified and objects that appear to be munitions-related are recovered. If munitions or munitions debris is found, soil and water samples may also be collected. This fieldwork forms the basis for a plan to address what, if anything, remains from military activities. 

The Mullet Key FUDS project marks the first time that the Corps has employed the services of explosive detection dogs at a FUDS. The innovative technology is being used for demonstration purposes, to evaluate its potential for further use in the program.

“The purpose of this demonstration technology is to evaluate the dogs’ ability to detect surface and sub-surface munitions and explosives of concern (MEC), including unexploded ordnance (UXO),” said Frank Araico, project manager.  “We are also determining their ability to differentiate between anomalies associated with ‘energetics,’ such as MEC and UXO, and those with non-energetics, such as munitions debris and scrap metal.”

The dogs investigate flagged locations along transect lanes that have been previously identified with traditional digital metal detection methods, and along transects that have not yet been flagged. Additionally, should a dog alert to an area outside an identified transect, handlers allow the dog to further investigate and then notify UXO personnel, who investigate further. 

Pete Owen, director of operations for AMK9, said the explosive detection dogs used at the Mullet Key FUDS project trained for approximately four months and are effective in their ability to locate explosives in numerous forms and quantities. 

“Typically, the dogs train for six to eight weeks, but in this case, we were training them to a higher threshold,” explained Owen. “They are normally trained to find explosives like nitrates on vehicles and along roadsides or buried to shallow depths. For this job, we needed them to be able to detect explosives buried more deeply, and which may have been buried for 60 or more years.”

At a recent demonstration of their capabilities, the detection dogs took turns locating a buried  training aid. One by one, they stressed the lead held by their handler as they searched the area for the telltale scent that would pinpoint their target. The presence of a strong wind makes their difficult job a bit easier, as it creates a scent cone that is more easily picked up by the dog. A marked change in a dog’s behavior – what might be described as a sense of greater urgency – signals its handler that it is zeroing in. The dog identifies the target by sitting; the handler showers his canine partner with words of praise and a special toy reserved for such a rewarding occasion. And the dog channels his inner puppy as he happily jumps and plays with the coveted toy.      

To date, with the exception of the training aid, neither the traditional metal detectors nor the explosive detection dogs have located buried explosive material at the site associated with the military’s training here during World War II. To provide a level of quality control, AMK9 has two different dogs cover on the site, confirming their results.

It takes a special kind of dog to do this type of work. Explosive detection dogs are primarily born and raised in Europe, where they start their basic obedience training at about a year old. Those with the highest level of “play and prey” drive make the best explosive detection dogs, because of their endurance, enthusiasm and motivation for performance activities such as agility drills, flyball and obedience training.   

“In the United States, we breed pets,” explained Owen. “Europe breeds sport dogs, and has done so for generations.”  Because the dogs learn the earliest basic commands in Europe, handlers here continue the practice of issuing commands in Dutch or German, to maintain consistency. The German word “bleiben” (Blijf) instructs them to sit or stay; “loslassen” (Los or Loslaten) means release or let go.  At about two years old, the dogs start detection training. 

Consistency is critical for the more than 750 K-9 teams AMK9 deploys worldwide to conduct approximately two million searches annually.  AMK9 worked with the Department of Defense to develop a national certification standard to ensure teams in the canine industry could perform consistently in any environment.  AMK9 handlers must have had prior canine handling experience earned in the military and/or law enforcement.  With stringent selection, training and certification protocols, AMK9 dogs have a 96 percent or better first-time pass rate.  

Explosive detection dogs serve for an average of eight years, after which they retire and may be adopted by qualified individuals or families. Though they don’t typically live with their handlers, they do share a very close, mutual partnership formed out of natural protectiveness, loyalty, and affection each develops for the other.

“It’s really hard to let them go at the end of a project,” said handler Stevie Valencia, who on this job works with Matos, a two-year-old Belgian Malinois and Rex, a three-year-old Dutch Shepherd. 

Roger Tappan works with Don, a five-year-old German Shepherd, and Jack, a four-year-old Belgian Malinois, both of whom completed a tour in Afghanistan.

“These dogs love to work and they are highly motivated to earn playtime with their toy,” explained Tappan.

 “Dogs don’t need to prove themselves,” said Owen. “We know what they can do. Because the traditional technology looks for metal, and the detection dogs look for explosives, it’s a great match and totally consistent with other technologies being used by the Corps.”

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