HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah --
Military working dogs begin their training as puppies at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, but their skills are refined the first few months upon arriving to their unit. Just like human Airmen, they must be trained and ready at all times; especially when they’re called to support a mission on or off base, or even overseas.
The most recent MWD to arrive at Hill Air Force Base is Ssoto, a two-year-old Belgian Malinois, who joined the 75th Security Forces Squadron in March 2023. Ssoto is an explosive detection dog and has spent the past few months training and bonding with his handler, Staff Sgt. Daniel Duarte.
Not too long after finishing his initial training and certification, the canine rookie has already completed his first presidential mission when President Joe Biden visited Salt Lake City earlier this month. Duarte and Ssoto’s role were to sweep the president’s hotel for explosives and render the site safe for the president and staff.
“Getting Ssoto prepared for basic operational tasks was no small feat, as most dogs need refreshers on tasks that they have once learned,” said Duarte. “Everyone in our section is amazed on the exceptional dog Ssoto is. We had a couple tasks that needed refinement when we started training with Ssoto, but not nearly the amount many new dogs require.”
According to Duarte, every new K-9 received by the unit goes through a Field Transition Qualifier, where the kennel master, trainer and handler must do a minimum of 80 hours of training with the MWD such as odor detection, bite control and obedience training.
During this time the handler and MWD work together to prepare for their Detection Validation & Certification and Patrol Validation. The Detection Validation is a test where the MWD team must find all odors he is trained on twice, over the course of three to five days, with an accuracy rating of at least 95%.
After the team passes validation, they must certify with the base commanding authority where they must find all trained odors with 100% success. After all these tests, the K-9 is fully certified for detection work.
Duarte said the first few months are the most critical in any relationship with an MWD.
“Making sure clear communication is being transmitted while building a bond is most important thing any handler can achieve,” he said. “The bond Ssoto and I have formed is something very unique and has really solidified our symbiotic working relationship.”
Even after certification, every day for a MWD like Ssoto is spent continuously training. He starts with three cups of food early in the morning before the team attends guard mount with the other 75th SFS defenders. Then it’s off to complete detection walks and other work around the installation. Mid-day he trains in the kennel’s shaded obedience yard where he sharpens old skills and learns new skills before his dinner and rest time.
“Every day from when we put Ssoto’s collar on, until it comes off at night, he’s training,” said Duarte. “We do detection training regularly to keep him up to speed on finding explosives, and patrol work to make sure his bite work remains excellent.”
The team must go through the validation process every six months and every year they again must complete the certification process with the base commanding authority.
Duarte said SSoto has a unique personality when it comes to other military working dogs. His strengths lie in the foundational skills he was taught as a puppy, and they will work on those skills to advance his knowledge in complex situations.
“Ssoto has a personality where he has very good manners when he needs to be, but steps on the gas full throttle when it’s time to work,” he said. “How he can ramp his energy up and down is phenomenal.”