Ruff Responder

A Coast Guard K-9 handler from the Marine Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas, and his bomb-sniffing dog are lowered from a MH-65 Dolphin from Air Station Houston to a boat, Feb. 7, 2014. The hoist was part of training designed to acclimate the dog and handler with the aerial entry process.

A Coast Guard K-9 handler from the Marine Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas, and his bomb-sniffing dog are lowered from a MH-65 Dolphin from Air Station Houston to a boat, Feb. 7, 2014. The hoist was part of training designed to acclimate the dog and handler with the aerial entry process.

Often times Coast Guard personnel are called to duty during not-so-ideal circumstances. Whether it’s during a disaster response, search-and-rescue case, oil spill, or ice-breaking operations in the Bering Sea, these not-so-ideal conditions are when its members thrive. That is when the Coast Guard completes missions, for the protection of our homeland and its people. So, naturally it is also when they must train.

Training includes all personnel and is not limited to humans. This training includes man’s best friend.

 Paws down, snout up and ready for landing; Bert, an explosive detection dog, from Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team Galveston and his handler, Petty Officer 2nd Class Chandler Nuttal, approached the deck of the training boat. They hovered over it, almost effortlessly, along with a whirlwind of freezing-cold saltwater.

 The confidence of Nuttal and his fury friend Bert, a 5-year-old German shepherd was evident as they were lowered more than 30 feet out of a Houston-based Coast Guard rescue helicopter to the deck of the boat.

“Our dogs are trained to search out hazardous material and using a K-9 to do this is a lot quicker than, say, an ion scan,” said Nuttal. “With Bert, we can search key parts of a ship very quickly and very systematically. Their olfactory, their sense of smell, is 100 times greater than a humans. So it makes it quick, accurate work for the Coast Guard.”

A Coast Guard K-9 handler from the Marine Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas, and his bomb-sniffing dog are lowered from a MH-65 Dolphin from Air Station Houston to a boat, Feb. 7, 2014. The hoist was part of training designed to acclimate the dog and handler with vertical delivery.

A Coast Guard K-9 handler from the Marine Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas, and his bomb-sniffing dog are lowered from a MH-65 Dolphin from Air Station Houston to a boat, Feb. 7, 2014. The hoist was part of training designed to acclimate the dog and handler with vertical delivery.

But before Nuttal and Bert can do their jobs, they must make the trip out to the boat. As in most things having to do with transportation at sea, the quickest way typically involves a helicopter.

“The importance of hoist training is to get the K-9 familiar with a helicopter,” said Nuttal. “If you take a dog, put them in a helicopter, push them out the door and say ‘go work,’ there’s a high probability they’re going to shut down.”

Nuttal and his K-9 ended their descent toward the boat and were within inches, the poise and confidence of Bert illuminated, looking completely content. He was geared-up, from muzzle to paw, in aviation goggles, a chest harness and a mouthpiece.

“Bert’s been hoisted about six to eight times and he’s very calm when it comes to hoists,” said Nuttal. “He does freak out at the initial getting out of the door, as anybody would when you’re coming out of a helicopter, but he is an irregularly-calm working dog.”

Bert wasn’t the only dog in training that day, his colleague Diggo, was getting acclimated to vertical entry as well.

Aside from the K-9 and handler, at the reigns of this complex evolution is the flight mechanic. Responsible for not only the safe lowering and raising of Bert and Nuttal, but also for communicating to the pilots the proper placement and optimal position for the hoists to occur. 

“This is the first time I’ve hoisted a dog,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Gregory Afek, an aviation maintenance technician at Air Station Houston. “The biggest difference of the evolution was the beginning, getting the handler and dog out of the door and hoisting them down. Normally I’m used to just one person for the initial portion, rather than two.”

Afek said he followed the normal checklist as usual and adjusted accordingly for both dogs.

“I just had to make a little more room for the dog and the first dog was a little squirmy, but I was told he wasn’t as experienced so I expected it,” said Afek. “That’s why we do training, to become familiar with these real-life situations.”

Nuttal shared some insight on how the handlers prepare their bomb-sniffing K-9’s for this unusual delivery.

A Coast Guard K-9 handler from the Marine Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas, and his bomb-sniffing dog stand on the deck of a boat after completing a hoisting evolution, Feb. 7, 2014. The hoist was part of training designed to acclimate the dog and handler with the aerial entry process.

A Coast Guard K-9 handler from the Marine Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas, and his bomb-sniffing dog stand on the deck of a boat after completing a hoisting evolution, Feb. 7, 2014. The hoist was part of training designed to acclimate the dog and handler with the aerial entry process.

“To get the dogs prepared we do what’s called successive approximation,” said Nuttal. “We’ll bring the dog to the helicopter. We’ll let them sniff around, let them get familiar, then we’ll ask that the blades be rotating, we’ll bring the dog under them, then away again, just to make sure they’re comfortable. Next we’ll deal with lifting off the tarmac. We’ll lift up off the ground then set back down. Next would be to give the dogs a short break and the last portion would be getting in the helicopter and getting underway.”

Currently the Coast Guard has 14 handlers and each handler has their own K-9, which they’re responsible for.

“The purpose for getting qualified for vertical delivery is that we can get to a helicopter, get to the ship and get the dog working a lot faster than if we have to get underway on a boat, beat up the dog with the sea state and then get them working,” said Nuttal. “The helicopter is just so much more efficient.”

The K-9 handlers and their dogs have a significant task. They’re responsible for sniffing out potential explosives on ships coming into our ports. Real-life training scenarios like this are the key to our proficiency as an organization and the success of our missions.

 

 

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