Dog-Training on Alcatraz Island

While visiting Alcatraz Island, I happened upon a dog team training exercise consisting of various organizations from police units: the FBI, the military, the TSA, and the Federal Protection Agency.  I attempted to find the person in charge to see if I could view the exercise.  While searching, I overheard a guide complain how the dogs were scaring the seagulls, and they should not have been allowed on the island.  My initial reaction was that the birds would know how to avoid the dogs, and America’s national security is a bit more important.  This was proven true after I saw and spoke to those participating in the exercise.

What was most interesting is that the saying “handlers’ emotions run down leash” is actually true.  The good dog teams allowed the dog to take the lead, showing their partners where the explosives were placed.  On the other hand, those with less experience would try to convince their canine partners where something could be placed.  For example, an explosive was placed inside a wall.  Those handlers who were inexperienced kept leading the dog to a certain area they thought was a good place for the explosive.  American Thinker was told this confused the dog because the dog wants to please and figures that if the handler keeps coming to this place, there must be something there. 

A dog handler trainer noted, “You have to think of a dog like a four-year-old child.  If the handler is concentrating on a certain area or if they key the dog by stopping them, the dogs feel they must find something, so they alert.  A good dog handler can usually tell because the dog just doesn’t act properly.”

Two of the best handlers I viewed were the FBI agent and the Federal Protective Service agent.  They were animated, and they just kept moving around until their dogs signaled a find.  Those in charge of the training explained that depending on the dog, the signal can vary.  Some dogs put their tails up, sat, lay down, or stood motionless.  But everyone said the same thing: “Once the dog alerts to a find, we get the hell out of there and wait for the bomb detection unit.  We need to trust our dog. They are so effective in detecting a small amount of odor in a very large space.”  The teams usually search not for an actual object, but for a residual odor, although at times the wind or length of time can affect it.

A dog handler also explained the difference between using a robot and a dog.  A robot was used in Garland, Texas at the Mohammed cartoon event, because “dogs are used to detect where the explosive will be through their smell of odors.  Once found, our job is done.  That is when a robot will be sent it to pick up the object and take it someplace else, where it can be detonated safely.  A dog handler’s job is to translate what the dog is alerting.”

Another fantastic team was Frank Pellegrini and his teammate, Koda, from the Protective Service Agency.  Frank noted that all the training done is vital “to the success of the mission.  Without recurring training to advance our skills, or work through newly formed problems, our ability as a team diminishes.  It’s similar to a person’s skills in something not regularly practiced.  I equate training to practice in professional sports; it’s a bare necessity.  I utilize the training every day, whether it’s during a routine proactive sweep, working with a security detail, or responding to a bomb threat.  K9 training is versatile, ever changing, and focuses on all aspects of what the dog can and will be exposed to.”

Another handler, who is also a retired military handler but now works for law enforcement, said that one major difference is that non-military dogs are able to come home with their partners.  “While pet dogs are allowed affection any time, working dogs still train when they are home.  Their reward most of the time is to play with a special toy.  We are able to lay out shotgun shells and have the dogs find it.  Our dogs are considered partners and family.  We get attached to each other.  However, my family had a learning curve, in that they could not give all the attention the dog might want.  Proper boundaries had to be set to ensure a strong work ethic was maintained.”

All the handlers interviewed concurred that the dogs were raised to understand that a successful find equals a reward, that it is a game to them.  They never get the specific reward unless it is earned – no gratuitous play.  The dogs must be kept physically fit and require a high-protein diet to maintain their stamina to effectively perform their duties. 

Frank believes that most handlers take the job because they love dogs.  He sees himself as lucky to have found such a loyal partner, a black lab, Koda.  “I have had Koda for over four amazing years.  Upon retirement, the handler gets the first option to adopt their K9, and when his time comes, I won’t hesitate to bring him on as my third child!  From what I have seen, working dogs retire when they are ready.  That can be due to old age (typically 8 to 11) or when the physical demands no longer allow the dog to comfortably complete the day’s work.  Our K9s in FPS continue to serve until they are unable to meet certification standards or medical requirements.  Our K9s receive a semi-annual physical to ensure they are healthy enough to perform our mission, protecting federal facilities and those on the property.  Around the age of 8 years old, FPS begins to financially forecast for a replacement K9 and retire them typically around the age of 10 years.”

It was an incredible experience to be able to speak with and view the dog handler teams in action.  It is obvious that these teams are important to America’s national security.  The sense of smell of a working dog is a vital weapon in thwarting terrorism.  Everyone should be thankful for these wonderful people and canines who put their lives on the line.

The author writes for American Thinker.  She has done book reviews and author interviews and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.