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Lieutenant Christopher Dixon, kennel master at the Adam Leigh Cann Canine Facility aboard Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, takes a pause in his day at the base kennels in Barstow, California, June 28. Dixon enjoys working with the dogs and appreciates each canine's individual personality at the kennels.

Photo by Sgt. Anika Lewis

More Than a Best Friend

30 Jun 2023 | Sgt. Anika Lewis Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow

Dogs are the most popular pet in the United States; and according to a 2023 report from Forbes Advisor, more than 65 million households in America own a dog. There are many reasons why people love dogs. However, there is a common phrase that sums up everything that make dogs loveable. A dog is a man’s best friend.

Dogs provide companionship and loyalty; they love unconditionally and are selfless; and dogs provide a source of happiness. Yet, dogs can provide even more than what they are commonly appreciated for. The dogs at the Adam Leigh Cann Canine Facility on Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow also have an important mission.

“Military Working Dogs bring a line of defense,” says Lt. Christopher Dixon, the MCLB Barstow kennel master, “They maximize security on the base.”

The base’s facility is allotted six MWDs. Currently, there are four at the kennels: Thor, Bono, Joe, and Esso. Two dogs were recently retired, but Dixon is planning to request new dogs to bring the kennel to full capacity. The 37th Training Wing at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, provides MWDs to the Department of Defense.

The dogs are first bought from breeders, sometimes even procured internationally. The dogs are then put through an initial training process at Lackland to test the dog’s aptitude at becoming a Military Working Dog. If not found suitable, the dogs are sent back to the breeder.

“The dogs that are accepted then get a full physical workup and tattoo in their ear,” Dixon said. “The tattoo is their stock number since military working dogs are marked as equipment.”

German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are typically purchased for MWDs. Dixon said both breeds are large, which naturally makes them psychological deterrents for people. They also adapt very well to their environment and are faster learners compared to other dog breeds.

Once their training at Lackland is complete, the dogs are sent to their respective duty assignments. The minimum age dogs begin training is 1 year old and the maximum age is 3 years old. Dixon said that the base generally receives dogs when they are between 2 to 3 years old. Once a new dog arrives at the base’s kennels, Dixon immediately pairs the dog with a handler.

“The best scenario is one dog, one handler,” he said. “Having one dog with one handler allows them to build a rapport together. The longer they work together, the greater team they become. Once the dog is paired with somebody, we usually don’t break that team up unless there is a reason for it.”

Military Working Dogs newly assigned from Lackland are validated and certified with their handler within 75 days. Dogs previously certified have 60 days to certify with their new handler. Certification tests the team’s basic skills, detection, and patrol. Dixon explained what training goes into becoming certified.

“First, we work on basic skills which cover on-leash and off-leash obedience,” he stated. “That’s everything from having the dog in the proper sit or heel position, marching with the dog, and running through the obstacle course.”

After the dog-handler team works on basic skills for about three weeks, they move on to patrol and detection work.

“Patrol training includes all the bite work, scouting, and building searches,” Dixon said. “The last thing we validate is detection. Detection covers explosives and drugs. For the drug dogs, they need to have a find ratio of 90% accuracy and an explosive ratio of 95% accuracy.”

Dixon said the basic, daily duties of working with MWDs includes letting the dogs out of their kennels in the morning, cleaning the kennels, feeding the dogs, and going on patrol. The dog-handler teams also have regular, dedicated times to focus on detection training and patrol work to ensure their skills remain proficient.

“Once you and your dog are a certified team, the most rewarding part of training is knowing you’re capable of going out and taking care of business,” Dixon said. “It’s a great feeling.”

Military Working Dogs are generally kept in service until they are around 8 or 9 years old. The exact age canines are retired is dependent on the individual dog, though. Dixon said once the MWD begins to have medical issues, Dixon consults with the vet to determine if the dog is ready for retirement.

When a dog is ready for retirement, he is run through a series of tests. Dixon said the tests are designed to assess the dog’s suitability for adoption. The tests include evaluating the dog’s aggression level to see if he is a safety risk.

“The former handler or any person who has worked with that dog has the option to take that dog for adoption,” he said. “If none of the handlers that previously worked that dog want to adopt him, we normally offer the dog up to anyone else at the kennels who knows the dog or would like to take that dog home. Then, we can offer the dog up to any other law enforcement personnel here. Finally, we can offer the dog to anyone who can provide the dog a good, loving, and stable home.”

To adopt a retired MWD, an application form also needs to be completed, but the adoption is free. In some cases, the person looking to adopt undergoes an interview process, as well. Providing a good home for the dog is the top priority.

During Dixon’s time at MCLB Barstow, working with the dogs has been his job’s greatest joy. The dogs make work fun and interesting for him, and he values each dog’s individual character, uniqueness, and desire to accomplish the mission.

“As long as I’ve worked with dogs, they work for your love,” Dixon said. “I definitely believe dogs are a man’s best friend.”

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