by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ali Flockerzi
Her partner walks beside her, reading her body language and encouraging her to keep moving. Suddenly, her sensitive nose catches a familiar smell. Bingo! She sits down confidently.
She glances up at her partner whose face now displays a huge grin. Her tail frantically wags as he tosses her a reward: her favorite black, rubber chew toy.
“Good girl, Luna,” Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Elliott Felix says in a high voice. “What a good dog!”
Being one of only 16 canine explosive detection teams in the Coast Guard, Felix and Luna play a vital role in advancing the Department of Homeland Security’s mission of securing the homeland and protecting Americans. Canine teams offer unique capabilities across various disciplines and can be deployed throughout diverse operating environments.
The Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) 91101, located in Seattle, is a readily deployable unit and annual certifications are instrumental in ensuring their canine teams are always ready for deployment.
“Historically, no machine or person has been able to out-perform the canine’s heightened sense of smell and intelligence during the detection phases,” said Lt. Jonathan Girot, operations officer, MSST Seattle. “The strong bond they develop with their handler enables them to work through and excel in adverse conditions or extended work periods with no loss of productivity.”
In Seattle, the MSST supports local law enforcement, prepares for local dignitary visits and even helps the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The pair acts as a visible deterrent and are proactive in safeguarding areas that are accessible to the public.
Over the course of three days, from September 18-20, 2016, Luna and Felix were tested during their first annual canine team certification which was conducted by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel. The tests took place at multiple operational areas consisting of a warehouse, an airport and a car lot.
This certification validates the handler’s ability to interpret the canine’s behavior and the team’s ability to locate the presence targeted odor.
Luna and Felix had a 100 percent find rate, meaning the pair successfully detected all the hidden explosives in each scenario. Until their next certification, Felix says he and Luna will continue training and working toward honing their skills.
“Without one another, Felix and Luna could not be able to fully execute our mission,” said Girot. “It is evident that as Felix learns more about his canine partner, the more efficient and capable they become, as evident by the perfect score in their latest evaluation.”
When the team is not training on explosive odor, they are working on Luna’s obedience and making sure she gets enough exercise. Felix finds that even dogs have good and bad days at work, so he’s learning to read Luna’s body language and understand her unique personality traits.
Luna shows interest and acts certain ways that help Felix recognize when she is on odor. She associates finding a product with a reward, such as playing with her chew toy or getting affection from her handler.
Felix and Luna are constantly training due to the canine’s strong will and sometimes stubborn mind, Felix commented. The handlers need to be able to read their partner’s body language to understand what she’s sitting for. Training is important to keep the handler and his canine sharp.
“Our handlers make training a priorty on a daily basis and they see every opportunity to build each dog’s confidence and improve upon weaknesses,” said Girot. “Whether preparing for evaluations or obedience training, the handlers at MSST Seattle see every day as an opportunity to better themselves.”
When the team decides to get out of the Coast Guard, Felix plans to adopt Luna and make her a part of his family.
“She’s part of who I am and we’ve been through so much together professionally and personally,” said Felix. “I spend more time with her than anyone in my life and our bond is something that can never be undone. Even when our job is complete, Luna will be with me forever.”