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I've always admired working dogs and their exceptional skills, so I was thrilled to have the privilege of interviewing Border Patrol agent, David Burke. He's the supervisor of the K-9 program in the Tucson Sector. His partner, Bailey, an 8 1/2 year-old Belgian Malinois was also there. She's a detection dog, working to locate concealed humans and narcotics. Although, Agent Burke will tell you that she can't match his first partner Cisco, Bailey does all right. Her best month netted over $2 million in marijuana. Not too shabby. She's also very adept at finding people who don't want to be found. Like those who are stowed in compartments secreted in truck beds, and other places.
These hardworking dogs and their handlers are a visible reminder of where we live. Being 20 miles miles from the international border means we have a lot of illegal traffic--both drugs and human. Most often I see these dogs at a checkpoint not far from our home. They sniff at a steady stream of northbound vehicles that are traveling toward the I-10. I've witnessed a dog alerting on a vehicle, which was immediately pulled over for further inspection.
The Border Patrol Canine Program has been around since 1987. Training centers are in El Paso, Texas and Front Royal, Virginia. The dogs were an instant success, and by 1988, 75 teams were working. The Border Patrol program merged with the Office of Field Operations canine program in 2009. Today, it is the largest canine program in the U.S. with over 1,500 teams working along the borders and other areas. The dogs and handlers go through a rigorous 7-week training program. Not everyone makes it. The dogs who wash out go back to the vendors. Most of the dogs come from Europe, although CBP has now instituted its own breeding program.
Foundational obedience training is the beginning for dogs in the program. Between 7-14 months, the dog has a final evaluation before entering training. A stable, social dog with a drive to work in the particular discipline is a successful dog, Agent Burke tells me. There are several different disciplines now available--detection for drugs and humans, search and rescue, human remains detection, patrol, track and trail. Agent Burke has been involved with searching for bad guys on the run through the desert at night, locating drugs and people in vehicles and houses. It's not an easy or safe job. The handler is responsible for the dog's well being at all times. "They'll work until they drop," Agent Burke says. The drive to work is exceptionally high in these special dogs and their focus is absolute on accomplishing the mission. The training dogs receive to detect substances, and people is all done with positive reinforcement--it's fun for the dog which keeps them focused and eager to work.
While visiting the Tucson office, I was also introduced to Keenan, a handsome male, who's 8-months old. He's getting that basic obedience training and will be evaluated soon. Still puppy-like and a little goofy, he's outgoing and friendly.
Bailey lives with Agent Burke and will likely spend her retirement years with him. Seven or eight years is average for these dogs to punch the clock. They receive regular checkups with military veterinarians and handlers keep a close eye on their dogs for any health complaints or injuries.
Agent Burke has been with the Border Patrol for 21 years and in the canine program for 17. He continues to be amazed at the performance of these dogs. He prefers the Malinois, but the program also uses Labradors, and other breeds in the Working and Sporting groups. The relationship between the handler and canine is key. They need to work as a team, and the handler needs to read his dog accurately. A handler who hasn't connected well with his dog won't be as effective.
With so much illegal traffic coming over the border, we need every tool to stop the flow of narcotics and bad guys. Yes, felons of all types attempt to cross the southern border into the U.S. The canine teams are one of the most effective tools in the toolbox. Even when technology can't find the drugs, dogs can. Another agent shared an incident of a vehicle which passed a search and an X-ray at the Nogales crossing. However, a dog on patrol alerted on the vehicle, which instigated another search. Narcotics were finally found well-hidden in the engine.
Hats off to these working dogs and their two-legged partners whose motto is "To Protect the Homeland." Please remember them in your prayers.
For more information: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/border_security/canine/background.xml