Military dogs follow their noses

Groton - Molly smelled the contraband in the building at the Naval Submarine Base. Her tail started to wag.

As Master at Arms Second Class Bryan Jones pointed along the wall, Molly sniffed. She began to zigzag back and forth, closing in on the scent until she had pinpointed it.

The 10-year-old springer spaniel sat down in front of a window ledge where a ballcap hid two metal tins, planted there for this recent training exercise. Jones tossed Molly a red dog toy, her favorite reward.

Molly is one of 10 dogs in Groton who detect drugs and explosives and patrol the grounds at the base as part of the Military Working Dogs program. The Defense Department has about 2,000 working dogs at major installations across the country and overseas.

In Groton, the dogs inspect buildings, submarines and anywhere else needed. They check vehicles entering the base and stand by the gate as a visual deterrent to any would-be troublemaker. They can be called on for Secret Service missions, such as presidential or vice presidential visits to the Northeast. Some deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Molly arrived at the base in November, some people said she was too old and had lost too many of her detection skills after not being used enough at another base. Molly was often guilty of "false responding," sitting down to indicate there were drugs or explosives where there were none. She did not follow all the obedience commands.

Molly was paired with Jones, one of seven handlers in Groton. The trick, Jones said, was for him to act goofy so Molly would have fun and change her behavior quickly.

"A lot of people thought she was done, because of her age and everything," Jones said. "I took it as a challenge, and I wanted to prove them wrong. That's what we're doing now."

Earlier this month, a Navy assessment team reviewed the working dogs at the Groton kennel. Molly passed. She also successfully searched a barracks building with the base commanding officer, Capt. Marc W. Denno, watching.

Molly's tale, Denno said, "almost sounds like the plot of a novel or movie."

"It has those classic plot twists about age, ability, support and ultimately redemption," he said. "And of course, in Molly's case, she's redeemed. She passed her certification fine."

Molly will be an asset to the base, Jones said, because she can fit into spaces on a submarine where typical military working dog breeds, like a German shepherd or a Belgian Malinois, cannot.

The commands at the base can call for a submarine inspection at random, or when a submarine is leaving or returning. Nothing has been found since Jones and his supervisor, Master at Arms Second Class Danielle Kubit, started working in Groton in 2008.

Denno said he knows the "value and impact of these outstanding dog and handler teams."

The Groton kennel is one of the largest in the Northeast, and its teams of dogs and their handlers often travel. They routinely go to Naval Station Newport, which does not have its own kennel. Two teams are in Afghanistan, a third in Iraq.

Britt, who is half German shepherd, half Belgian Malinois, returned to Groton in 2007 after spending nine months in Anbar province. Dogs like Britt help find drugs or explosives hidden on people, in vehicles or by the roadside. They go on patrols and guard military bases.

Training the dogs

The military working dogs learn their skills at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

It takes an average of six months to train dogs to detect drugs or explosives and patrol. They learn basic obedience skills and how to recognize the odor of drugs or explosives. They get food or a toy when they recognize the smell.

The process is repeated until the dogs associate the odor with the reward and consistently find the odor, said Maj. Kathy Jordan, commander of the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School. A similar process is used to teach dogs to bite a suspect.

Jordan said the school trains about 270 dogs annually, to keep the total number for the Defense Department at about 2,000. A dog's average age at retirement is 8½ years old, but the average age prior to Sept. 11, 2001 was three years older because dogs were deploying much less.

"Whether it's bombs or drugs, people know that the dog is going to find it, and it's a deterrent," Jordan said, adding that a dog that is deployed and finds a bomb before it goes off probably saves lives.

Technology can't compete with a dog, Jordan said.

"Companies have brought equipment up here and put it against the dog," she said. "The dog's nose is just superior."

Dog on duty

For Molly, the training is not over yet.

She recently went on board the USS New Hampshire, her first time on an operational submarine.

Jones placed Molly in his beige backpack and climbed down the submarine's hatch. At the bottom, he unzipped the backpack and lifted Molly out.

She started to walk around the Virginia-class submarine, but she soon grew shy and intimidated by all the people who had gathered to watch.

The crew is accustomed to seeing large German shepherds lowered down on harnesses into submarines to check for drugs and explosives- not a 32-pound Springer spaniel.

Molly tried to hide. Jones held the leash to keep her in place so she lay down on the floor, coughing.

"She's not going to work," Jones said. "It's too much."

"How many times before she gets acclimated?" asked Cmdr. Michael Stevens, the ship's commanding officer.

"It will have to be an everyday thing, sir," Jones replied.

"How old is she?" Stevens asked.

"Ten, sir," Jones said.

"Really? Wow," Stevens said.

Lt. Cmdr. Mark Robinson, engineer on the New Hampshire (SSN 778), said using smaller dogs on the submarines seems like a good idea because they "can get into tight spaces, and it's easier for them to move around a small boat."

Jones will now begin taking Molly on the submarines regularly so she can get used to working in that environment. Jones expects her to do well, since she has progressed quickly with the rest of her training.

"She has come a long way," Jones said.

"I guess I pushed her pretty hard to get there. I asked a lot of her, and she did it."

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