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Grand Forks Air Force canines 'love' job helping base, local police

GRAND FORKS -- Tech Sgt. Matthew Byrnes took off his protective jacket and held out his arms, looking at the teeth-shaped marks and discolorations on his skin.

GRAND FORKS -- Tech Sgt. Matthew Byrnes took off his protective jacket and held out his arms, looking at the teeth-shaped marks and discolorations on his skin.

But that's just part of his job as kennel master of the Grand Forks Air Force Base 319th Security Forces Squadron K-9 section, he said.

The unit has nine dogs, training and working every day with their handlers. Part of their duties include patrolling the base and its perimeter to keep people from getting any ideas of jumping the fence. The dogs might be searching buildings and cars to make sure everything is in order with military police. Or they could be called out of the base to nearby cities in emergency situations.

"If it requires K-9, most of the time that's bomb threats," said Staff Sgt. Victoria Dames, a working dog handler. "So, if the schools get bomb threats or the buildings get bomb threats downtown, we are the K-9 for what's closest for us."

Dames and her Belgian Malinois, Arco, were called in to the bomb threats that were determined to be hoaxes at Century Elementary School on May 23 and at Red River High School a few days later.

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The base has a good working relationship with Grand Forks and UND police in addition to other law enforcement agencies in the area with whom they have working agreements, Byrnes said.

"We provide the speciality because it's something that we have a lot of experience in when it comes to explosives," Byrnes said. "If there's a bomb threat downtown, we basically deal with that stuff more frequently than the local law enforcement may."

And there's expertise police have that they can help the base with, too.

"We need their assistance maybe with more drug interdiction type stuff," Byrnes said. "Not that we can't handle it ourselves, but they do a lot more of it and they have a hot commodity of it, so it's something we share."


'Nice bite'

After walking through a kennel of barking dogs, Dames took 7-year-old Arco on a leash outside Wednesday to go through a practice course. The two work together every day, and part of that is going through these drills.

Arco ran over a beam, leapt through a wooden stand and practiced chasing down a suspect. Meanwhile, Byrnes strapped on a thick, black protective jacket and started waving his arms around as he ran away from Arco. Dames shouted a command, and that's when Arco took off running after Byrnes.

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But at the last second, Dames ordered Arco to stop, and Arco sat with his tongue out, staring up at Byrnes.

Later, Dames ordered Arco to latch onto Byrnes. Arco doesn't have all of his canines, but "he still has a nice bite," Byrnes said after Arco let go. The dog uses his back teeth to make sure he's on and won't slip off if a person moves around, Byrnes explained.

The dogs are trained as puppies in Texas before coming to Grand Forks and other bases. And just like the dogs, Dames had to go through monthslong training to be a handler.

But eventually the dogs retire, just like the airmen do. It depends on the dog, but most work in the unit for 10 to 12 years, Byrnes said. Next week, Ferra is retiring from the Air Force at 10 years old, and there will be a ceremony complete with a dog bed and steak for Ferra.

"They put in just as much work as we do," Byrnes said.

After she retires, she's living on a farm to have relaxing life, he said.

"It's just like us when we stop and go back to civilian life," Byrnes said.


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Dog people

Byrnes and Dames have been at Grand Forks Air Force Base with the dog unit for about three years, but both of them didn't originally plan on it.

"I didn't even know the military had it when I came in," Byrnes said. "As soon as I could do it, I put in for it."

And while Dames loves working with Arco now, she wasn't always a dog person. Dames was stationed in England when she found out about the program.

"They wanted a new program where they were starting to filter in younger airmen into the K-9 program," Dames said.

She went through the selection process and was chosen to go through a three-month training program. But at the time, she said just seeing a dog's saliva made her nauseous.

"Personally, I didn't really care for dogs too much. I was definitely a cat person before I went K-9," Dames said with a laugh. "And now I just I love it."

She's built a relationship with Arco and taught him some extra tricks, such as weaving through her legs like a basketball player might dribble a basketball between his legs as he walks.

Dames has different methods on how to reward Arco for a job well done. When she pulled a plastic blue ball from the front right pocket of her uniform, Arco didn't take his eyes off it, watching its every move.

The dogs have an important job, but they are still dogs at heart, enjoying the ups and downs of the jobs like the airmen do.

"(The dogs) love what they do," Byrnes said.

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