[EDITOR’S NOTE: Names of dogs produced in the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Breeding Program begin with double capitalized letters.]
Saliva slides down OOlaf’s tongue, his eyes focused intently on Staff Sgt. Sharif DeLarge as the military working dog waits for the command. When DeLarge gives the word, the Belgian Malinois leaps several feet in the air, clenching his jaws around his prey – the wrap on his handler’s arm.
Had this been an actual suspect, OOlaf wouldn’t have released his grip until DeLarge gave the word. In this exercise, OOlaf demonstrated all three characteristics the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Breeding Program looks for in its dogs – predatory behavior, boldness in sociality and a willingness to work in any environment, whether dark, noisy or with any other distractions.
OOlaf, who was born in the breeding program’s fourth OO litter at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, is the son of RRespect and a male stud dog named FFalcor. But OOLaf, who is affectionately called “Laffers” by his handlers, is more than just another highly motivated working dog. He, his parents ,, and RRespect’s sister UUkita, are also important links in a bloodline of high-quality dogs in DOD breeding.
This link is partially responsible for the program’s shifting focus from obtaining breeding dogs overseas and other sources to producing more breeding dogs themselves, said Dr. Stewart Hilliard, the 341st Training Squadron’s chief of military working dog evaluation and breeding flight.
The MWD are like other Airmen or Soldiers in the fight. They even have their own equivalent of a dog tag –identification tattoos inside their left ears. But just like there are some service members more prone to heroics than others, there’s something that sets the breeding dog apart from its peers – the bloodline.
To describe the difference between a typical MWD and a dog set apart for breeding, Hilliard uses the analogy of the difference between a typical Army private first class and a special forces Soldier, who has the unique genetics, physical, temperamental and character features to do a job most cannot.
“There are two ranges in the quality of a dog,” he said. “There is the dog that is the fine animal that is useful for military working dog service. But there is a quality of dog above that, which is one big working order above the common military working dog. This is the dog whose drive is stronger, whose nerves are stronger and whose courage is higher.”
RRespect was the result of a breeding between a Belgian-bred Malinois male from France with a DOD-bred female in 2010, which resulted in the program’s best litter to date, Hilliard said. The mating was repeated with the U litter later that year. Because females RRespect and UUkita, from the second litter, were representative of the superior genetics of their older siblings, they were kept for breeding, as well as frozen semen from a couple of the males.
“What’s special about RRespect and UUkita is they come from a very strong family,” Hilliard said. “When you look at their brothers and sisters, many of them are high-quality dogs. That means I know the family. The family is very high in quality, and they are very good bets, about as good bets as a dog breeder is ever going to have, for the kind of dog that, when bred properly, will produce more high-quality dogs.”
RRespect and UUkita, who have already produced five litters between them, are just two of 22 breeding females in the program, along with two standing stud dogs: FFalcor and OOlaf. But the program also has access to many other male dogs, including some privately owned males in Holland and The Netherlands, and between 10 to 14 others through frozen semen. Some of these dogs are long dead, but one produced SSheila, which recently birthed her own litter. Areas overseas ravaged by disease and instability could disrupt the program’s MWD supply.
Circumstances overseas may eventually make raising quality dogs even more important. Areas that are politically unstable, plus those that have become ravaged by disease, can wreak havoc on the program’s supply of MWDs, Hilliard said.
“A situation where we get all of our supplies from overseas, particularly from parts of the world that could conceivably become unstable, could disrupt our supply of military working dogs,” Hilliard said. “Also, potentially, disease concerns could affect our supply of military working dogs. There are a number of factors that are beyond our control that could rather suddenly and catastrophically interrupt our supply of military working dogs.”
Almost two decades ago, DOD foresaw this problem on the horizon, which was the reason the breeding program was founded in 1998 — so the department would eventually have the capability to produce its own breeding dogs. Currently, the program is producing 15 percent of its MWD inventory, Hilliard said.
“But that means we know how to do it. We have the facilities, we have the techniques and we have the genetic material,” he said. “So if suddenly our supply of military working dogs overseas were interrupted, we would be in a position to ramp this program up to produce a larger proportion of military working dogs.”
While the breeding program’s focus has moved toward breeding more of its own dogs, the end result remains producing what’s known as dual-purpose dogs – those that are proficient in both substance detection and patrol, Hilliard said.
“We also try to supply for DOD first-class dogs, dogs of extremely high quality, because it’s hard to buy a first-class dog in the open market,” Hilliard said. “Everybody wants that dog, and DOD doesn’t pay the highest prices.
“So one of the points in having a breeding program is because if the litter is ours, and there is an absolutely stupendous dog in that litter, we get that dog because we bred them. So it’s a way for us to get top-quality dogs.”
MWD handlers see the effects of the breeding efforts in the FFalcor bloodline in their own dogs. At least, DeLarge sees the qualities of a supreme working dog in OOlaf.
“I can tell you that physically, he’s an agile, fast, strong and hard-hitting dog,” said DeLarge, an 802nd Security Forces Squadron MWD handler. “His detection capabilities are spot on, which is essentially the most important job he has as a military working dog. I have no doubt in my mind that he has one of the best noses in the kennel when it comes to detection.
“OOlaf’s desire to please me as his handler is especially exceptional when it comes to any task I give him. In a sense, he is the definition of an impeccable military working dog, and all of these attributes make him nothing less than perfect for the breeding program.”
The breeding program produces an average of 11 litters a year, but several litters since the program’s inception have proven to be more influential than the others, in terms of producing the bloodline that Hilliard has been searching for. Two litters born in 2001 and 2002, called the A1 and C1 litters, were the combination of a female named Boyca and a male named Rico.
“Boyca was the beginning of everything,” Hilliard said. “She produced dogs better than we had any right to expect. This was the beginning of our success.”
About seven years ago, a union between OOri and a Dutch shepherd named Kim produced a number of quality males, including FFalcor. Eventually, FFalcor replaced Arnold as a stud dog and sired the litter that produced OOlaf.
The bloodline represented by dogs like RRespect, UUkita and OOlaf is expected to produce generations of dogs to come for the breeding program, Hilliard said.
“Hopefully, what will happen is in the next several years, I will develop a large pool of dogs that are sons and daughters of UUkita and RRespect and other females that are related to each other in varying degrees. In each case, what we have done is probe the results of taking our bloodline and mixing it with another bloodline of very high-quality dogs, looking for where we should go in the future to produce the best dogs for us.”
MWD breeding specialists believe that several decades of establishing its own bloodline will lead to more success on producing the type of dogs that will serve the DOD the best in the future.