TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- As Pepper leapt over a 5-foot fence to catch up with a "bad guy," his left hind paw was caught in one of the chain links. As the rest of his body catapulted forward, his paw remained snagged in the fence. When he freed his paw out from the fence, his leg hung distorted and lifeless. His handler knew something was terribly wrong with the K-9. "My initial reaction when I saw what happened was to run to his aid," said Tech. Sgt. Chris Smith, a 60th Security Forces Squadron kennel master. "The crazy thing was that Pepper was still more interested in chasing a ball than staying off his limp, injured leg."
This injury shattered Pepper's leg from the knee down and tore all three tendons in his knee. There was no choice but to amputate the leg. This was the end of Pepper's time as a Military Working Dog. At the time of the injury, Smith was a staff sergeant stationed at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. He was new to the K-9 subsection of security forces, and Pepper was his first assigned dog. Just as Smith was new to this, Pepper only was operational as a MWD for six months and Smith as his first handler. Pepper was 2- years-old at the time. "It was scary bringing him home after his leg amputation," Smith said. "When he went out in the yard for the first time, he kind of stumbled with his first few steps. Then he was off like a rocket and was able to move naturally with three legs."
After the surgery, Pepper adjusted to retirement and became a member of the family. "On my wedding day, Pepper was the ring bearer," Smith said. "He came barreling down the aisle on three legs and halted when he got to us. The ring was tied around his neck and when he gave me a high-five, his paw caught the necklace so it looked like he put the ring in my hand." Now 9-years-old, Pepper has maintained this agility. Pepper has the energy and playfulness of a puppy with the discipline of a retired military working dog, Smith said. He can do pretty much anything any other dog can do and then some. At a K-9 competition Aug. 2 in Alameda Calif., the Belgian Malinois had the opportunity to test his skills beside active police and MWD. The task was to sniff out narcotics in a cluttered garage, as well as in a lineup of four stationary vehicles. For a MWD to be successful in these tasks, an understanding between handler and dog must exist. "When a dog is on a scent that they've been trained to sniff out, they'll show you a change in behavior," Smith said. "You have to know your dog well enough to understand what they're trying to tell you." For example, when Pepper is on a scent, he will start to pitter patter his front paws on the ground and look back and forth from his handler to the scent, Smith said. In the narcotics garage, Pepper sniffed out cocaine, marijuana and heroin, which placed his performance better than many of the competing active working dogs.
"Pepper was unbelievable," Smith said. "He was so excited to be working again. He was searching as hard as I have ever seen and he was sharp." For Smith, Pepper is more than just a former MWD. "I love Pepper like he's my kid," he said. "He's an amazing dog."