Story by: 2nd Lt. Phil Fountain

YYork, a military working dog in training with the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog Breeding Program, is pictured playing with toy in water. YYork is currently being fostered by Col. Susan M. Dickens, commander of the 149th Mission Support Group, Texas Air National Guard, a subordinate unit of the 149th Fighter Wing, at JBSA-Lackland. (Photo courtesy of Col. Susan Dickens / Released)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – LACKLAND, Texas – Two members of the 149th Fighter Wing, Texas Air National Guard have opened their hearts and homes to future military working dogs. The dogs are from the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Military Working Dog (MWD) Breeding Program, which is operated by the U.S. Air Force’s 341st Training Squadron. The wing and the squadron are both based here.

Col. Susan M. Dickens, commander of the 149th Mission Support Group, and Tech. Sgt. Brandon M. Harrist, an aircraft electrical and environmental systems craftsman assigned to the 149th Maintenance Squadron, are each fostering military working dogs in training.

The puppies were born earlier this year at the program’s JBSA-Lackland facility, they said, and Dickens and Harrist took them home over the summer.

Dickens is caring for YYork, a Belgian Malinois, while Harrist is caring for DDexter, a Dutch Shepard.

“[YYork] is part of the YY4 litter,” Dickens said. “All the puppies in a particular litter have the double first letter in their names.”

The double first letter in the dog’s name indicates they are part of the DoD MWD program.

“Lackland is the largest military working dog training facility in the U.S., and possibly the world,” said Tracy Cann, a foster consultant with the DoD MWD Breeding Program. “This has been the place to train MWDs since the military started using dogs in wartime and in peace.”

Cann manages the recruiting and screening of potential fosters, and also evaluates the health and wellness of the puppies in the program’s care.

There are multiple MWD programs within the DoD, she said, but that all their dogs are processed through the Lackland facility. Cann said there are four programs to train the dogs: a trainer’s course, a specialized search dog course, a combat tracker dog course and a mine detection dog course.

This is not Harrist’s first rodeo when it comes to fostering a MWD in training.

Harrist and his wife, Lora, who is the primary trainer, have previously fostered three Belgian Malinois, he said.

There are some challenges to training working dogs.

“They are very intelligent and have a lot of energy,” Harrist said. “Trying to keep the balance of training them to be a working dog and becoming a pet can be challenging. But we have great people on the breeding program staff and other fosters that are always there to help out.”

Dickens agreed that there are a number of challenges.

“The biggest challenge is the logistics of taking him places with you,” Dickens said. “He is very active, mentally and physically, so you have to ensure he is getting enough activity or he will get into mischief.”

But with the challenges come some unique opportunities.

Harrist said he has escorted his dogs to interact with senior Air Force leaders and has been able to participate in numerous civic demonstrations.

The fosters are expected “to socialize the pups at a young age, so they learn to trust people and aren’t afraid of being in different environments,” Harrist said. They also work with getting the dogs to interact positively to various rewards.

Fosters like Dickens and Harrist are important to the training process and the dog’s success.

“Working dogs are very high energy and intelligent and growing up in a kennel could make them shy and introverted when we need them to be just the opposite,” Cann said. “Foster homes raise the puppies in their homes and socialize them in all kinds of environments, which would not be possible if they were raised in kennels.”

This initial training is important to get the dogs ready for their next level of training and careers.

Dickens said she regulates YYork’s diet to ensure he remains fit for his future training.

“We use the philosophy that he is an athlete and must train and eat right to be the best he can be,” Dickens said. “So no ‘people’ food and no ‘eating’ the toys. Needless to say, we are constantly picking up toy parts once they start getting torn up.”

After the dog’s comprehensive training is complete, Cann said they work on explosive and drug detection patrols, as well as tracking suspects, among other missions. Fosters are a critical component of the getting the dogs to where they need to be.

Beyond the basic training requirements, fosters are also expected to ensure the dog’s receive comprehensive medical care.

“When the puppies are little, you have to take them to the Holland MWD Hospital for their vaccinations,” Dickens said, “which are every few weeks until they are four months old.”

Additionally, all parties within the breeding program maintain close contact with program officials.

“We have monthly training sessions,” Harrist said, “so the heads of the breeding program can see how the pups are progressing and give us feedback, as well as pointers for keeping them on the right tract.”

Dickens said the monthly training sessions are “very helpful and gives you insight on what to expect as they get older.”

“This has been tremendously helpful as a first-time owner,” she said.

The toughest part of the program is saying goodbye, they both said. These dogs will soon head back to the 341st Training Squadron to begin their next level of training.

“The most challenging part for us, really, is their report day,” Harrist said. “You get attached to them as if they are your pet, and it’s hard to say goodbye to them. But then you just keep reminding yourself that these dogs are going to go out and save lives.”

YYork is Dickens’ first foster, and she has been preparing to say goodbye.

“It will be very difficult to not have him with our family anymore,” Dickens said. “But he is definitely ready for the next step. Since he goes to work with me almost every day, I will probably miss him the most and it will take some adjusting to not having my ‘little shadow’ following me everywhere.”

Harrist said the program coordinators attempt to keep him up-to-date with the dog’s training, when possible.

“Sometimes they even send us pictures or video of our dogs in action,” Harrist said. “On occasion, we are lucky enough to see our pups after turn in.”

After returning to the program, the dogs will undergo further training to be readied for transition to an active military unit.

They come back to our trainers and start their pre-training at the age of seven months,” Cann said. “After two weeks of acclimation in their new environment, they are tested in various areas. If they pass testing at that time, they stay in pre-training with our trainers until they are 12 months old.”

“At 12 months, the puppies are tested once more – this is the same test that all MWD's must pass,” she said. “Once tested and accepted, the dogs move onto their respective training schools to receive advanced training for 90-120 days. If the dogs make it through this training, they are tested once again (for certification). When the dogs are certified they are then assigned to a base [or] post and start their operational careers.”

Once in the field, the dogs work for about 10 years.

“They generally work until they are eight to 12 years old,” Cann said. “They are usually adopted by their (military) handler, or to the public, if it is appropriate for the individual dog when they retire.”

But it all starts with those willing to open their hearts and homes to this important program.

“Outside fosters are vital to our program,” Cann said. “Without them, we would not succeed.”

Read more: airmen open hearts homes future military working dogs