United States Air Force Staff Sgt. Jessie Keller’s armored vehicle last year ran over a roadside bomb that blasted the vehicle sideways, nearly killing Keller and her bomb-sniffing dog — Oscar. But the shaken team quickly scrambled out through the crumpled roof of the truck — and went to work clearing the route so the trucks could get through.
The lives of the whole unit depended on Keller and Oscar, the most effective bomb and mine detector and tracker in the arsenal. That’s why military dogs and their handlers are leading the pack in the Middle East, clearing buildings and guiding troops through some of the most dangerous areas.
While police have long relied on dogs to sniff out drugs, the military’s embrace of dogs trained to detect bombs is saving lives on the front lines. Last week, K9 officers from all across the region got a chance to see those furry heroes in action at a series of training events in Payson.
Keller, 27, who leaves again for Afghanistan early next year for the seventh time, said she could not imagine going overseas without a dog at her side.
Last week, Keller joined dozens of other K9 teams in Payson for the annual training event sponsored by the Arizona Law Enforcement Canine Association (ALECA).
Teams from the Department of Corrections, police departments from all over Arizona, and the military went through a bevy of training scenarios, each based on a real-life situation a handler previously encountered.
On Thursday, the Roundup caught up with several teams at Payson Concrete where an intense exercise was under way.
A vehicle thief had run into an abandoned building. Hot on his tail, teams took turns sending in a K9. When the man emerged, however, he had a knife and was stabbing the dog. When the man would not let go, each officer had to decide if they would shoot.
Every officer that went through the scenario hesitated only a moment before shooting the suspect.
Asked later why they shot so quickly, they each replied, “Because he was stabbing my dog!”
These dogs are considered family, fighters and friends.
When Keller’s vehicle was blown up, she worried first about her dog — then about herself.
“When you get blown up, you don’t get a lot of time. You have to get back up and he was good,” she said. “Our vehicle got rocked 180 degrees, fell back down, we couldn’t get out the back door, the back door got jammed, so we had to go out the roof and once we got out roof, we had to go back to work.”
One officer compared a K9 dog to a normal dog, jacked up on Mountain Dew.
Jason Hoff, an officer with the Department of Corrections, the “suspect” in Thursday’s scenario, said he has taken hundreds of bites, but never gets over the power of those dogs.
After taking a number of bites in a thick, padded suit that Hoff said makes him look like a giant chew toy, Hoff was reluctant to take a break.
Hoff said he loves working with the dogs, his ultimate goal is becoming a handler.
If he has to take a thousand bites to get there, Hoff said he would.
“It is phenomenal to see how their training translates to something like that,” he said.
Keller, who served in the Air Force five years before joining a K9 unit at Luke Air Force Base in Goodyear, said she has also taken hundreds of bites.
A dog’s bite can produce upwards of 250 pounds of pressure.
Getting bit is all part of becoming a handler. If you love dogs, you will hang out with the K9 unit whenever you can, in whatever capacity you can, even if that means getting bit, she said.
When Keller leaves for Afghanistan, she will have a new dog at her side. Crash, who recently won a Bronze Star after sniffing out seven improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during his last deployment.
In the Air Force, unlike police departments, dogs are shuffled between handlers.
While a handler can only serve so many months overseas, a dog can be sent out more often, Keller said.
Unfortunately, that meant Oscar, a dog Keller had been with for 1.5 years, will take off to Afghanistan in September with Justin Lopez, another handler.
“We dog swap because we deploy so much,” she said. “That was my baby (Oscar) and I got really attached. We went through a lot of really tough stuff together and because we didn’t have kennels he was with me all the time.”
Keller hopes to adopt Oscar when he is retired.
For now, Keller is teaching Maxo, a relatively new dog to the force, how to sniff out drugs.
Most dogs are either trained to detect narcotics or bombs.
Bomb-sniffing dogs must take commands from as far away as 100 yards.
Since these dogs are searching in dangerous areas, handlers send them out in front, off-leash. Before, handlers would stay close behind their dog. But if a dog triggered a bomb, it would take out both the dog and the handler and sometimes the whole unit.
In the last five months, Keller said a number of K9 teams have been killed or wounded.
That makes training even more important. Sometimes, however, a dog is lost.
“Unfortunately, the dog may get blown up, but he saves the team,” she said.
Keller said terrorists are increasingly using pressure plate bombs and homemade explosives.
Because a dog will only alert on a smell it has learned, handlers have had to work quickly to teach dogs these new odors.
While training dogs takes time and patience, Keller said working with units that may have not worked with a dog, much less a woman handler before, has been challenging at times.
Keller said it can take time before a squad fully trusts her and her dog’s instincts.
Being a woman in Afghanistan has some advantages though. When doing home searches, many families are more comfortable with a woman coming in than a male trooper, she said.
When not deployed, Keller will often work presidential missions.
K9 teams are at every event the president or vice president attends.
With the election coming, Keller said she would be on the road quite a bit. Last year, she traveled to Mexico for an event Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended.
Keller said she loves that every workday is so different.
“You can be having the worst day in the world, but you go see the dog and they are happy and ready to work” and it changes everything.