TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A palpable anxiety from both military working dog and handler lingered as participants of the Western States Police Canine Association trial awaited their turn to compete in unknown territory May 16 here.
"Everyone is a little nervous to come down and test themselves or their dog on what should be a familiar odor, drug or explosive," said Tech. Sgt. Christopher Smith, the 60th Security Forces Squadron military working dog kennel master. "Handlers show up anticipating a good show. When they see the custom obstacles we built as well as Humvees, machine guns and all-terrain vehicles, a noticeable excitement fills the air."
The Travis AFB trial brought 66 competitors from 29 different agencies to the base, with more than 400 spectators in attendance. The competition tested the ability of handlers and canines to work in cohesion in the fields of explosives and narcotics detection, agility, obedience, field search, patrol and protection.
The WSPCA's mission is to promote professionalism and safety for all working police K-9 teams through sanctioned competitions, seminars and newsletters. Membership includes canine handlers from law enforcement, corrections teams and military teams from city, county, state and federal agencies, according to the association's website.
While the Travis AFB team competes in various trial locations throughout the year, this is the first time a WSPCA trial has taken place at Travis, or any military installation, Smith said. Not only was Travis AFB the first military installation to host a trial for the WSPCA, it also turned out to be the largest detection K-9 trial in the history of the WSPCA.
Sgt. Marty Mahon of the South San Francisco Police Department used his 13 years of dog-handling experience to judge a narcotics detection portion of the trial.
"Factoring in an unfamiliar environment adds stress to the dogs and the handlers," he said. "This makes the trial more realistic and ultimately makes the dog and handler more experienced."
With two-by-fours, Plexiglas and plywood, the Travis AFB handlers devised an obstacle to test the ability of the handlers to adapt with their K-9 counterparts.
"On the second day of the trial, we unveiled a box with a window we had spent weeks building from scratch," Smith said. "I knew it would be impressive and challenging for the dogs to jump through a small window to get the bad guy. The first dog sprinted across the field and couldn't find his way in to bite the bad guy. Then he suddenly realized there was an option to leap 5 feet in the air and sink his teeth into the criminal. It was amazing."
When dogs and handlers work together to figure out how to use the training aid of other agencies, it strengthens them as a team, Mahon said. It's important for the handler to know how to read the dog and notice how they react to indications in any environment.
At the completion of the trial, 57 trophies were awarded to 21 different winners.
"Travis (AFB) did a great job planning and organizing the trial, especially with so many competitors and different moving parts," Mahone said.
Though the tensions of competition flared up, the special connection handlers shared with their dogs blanketed the trial with a sense of camaraderie, Smith said.
"Each dog is unique and each handler has their experiences," he said. "A handler you meet tomorrow may have that one fix you need to advance your dog and you wouldn't get that anywhere else."