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Canines in the Service of Maritime Security

hoist team
A Coast Guard K-9 handler with the Marine Safety and Security Team in Galveston, Texas, and his dog are lowered to a boat from a Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin from Air Station Houston, 2014 (USCG)

By U.S. Coast Guard News 10-23-2020 07:25:38

[By MLE2 Anthony M. Ross, USCG]

The United States Coast Guard has a long history of military working animals. During the early years of World War II, German spies landed on East Coast beaches and enemy subs were sighted on East and West coasts. These incidents led to the establishment of Coast Guard beach patrols and, by August 1942, the first Coast Guard dog was on patrol. During the war, 2,000 dogs participated in beach patrols alongside their Coast Guard handlers.


Coast Guard canines conduct beach patrols during World War II

In the 1990s, there were several Coast Guard canine teams in service. These teams were located at Station Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and Station South Padre Island, Texas, and used mainly for narcotics detection. In addition, there was a narcotic detection canine stationed at the Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) in Miami, Florida. Over the years, the Coast Guard’s narcotics detection canine program has remained relatively small. Normally, Coast Guard units find narcotics on the order of hundreds of pounds. With drug quantities of this scale, there’s no need for a dog, because humans can visually locate the drugs.


PO2 Richard Bacone from Maritime Safety and Security Team New York conducts a security sweep with his canine, Ruthie, during a dinner cruise in Washington, D.C., Jan. 19, 2017 (USCG)

As new mission threats have evolved, the Coast Guard’s canine team capability has also evolved. The modern Coast Guard Canine Explosive Detection Program was initiated as a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The Coast Guard was tasked with a variety of Maritime Homeland Security missions, which included high-capacity vessel safety and security for cruise ships and ferries and the best tool for this job is an explosive detection canine team. Due to the canine’s unique ability to detect even the smallest amount of explosives, Coast Guard units could effectively screen vessels before and after they left port. Thus, the modern Coast Guard Canine Program was born.

The service’s preference of dog breed for law enforcement and substance detection mission has changed through the years. During World War II, the Coast Guard used mostly Doberman Pinschers; however, like other military branches, the Coast Guard often received dogs from civilians who gave up pets for the war effort. Therefore, the service used a variety of breeds for its beach patrol in the early days of the program. The breeds first used in the modern Coast Guard Canine Program were Labrador Retrievers; however, as the science of canine capabilities has progressed, the service has added specific breeds, such as German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, German Short Haired Pointers and Vizslas.

Coast Guard canine handlers are also a special breed. Candidates must be Maritime Enforcement Specialists of the highest caliber with an enlisted rank of at least a second-class petty officer. Members that apply must receive a positive endorsement from their commanding officer and a thorough screening by headquarters. Selectees must also dedicate six years to the service to ensure they are committed to the demands of this highly sought after position.


A Coast Guard Maritime Security Response Team West servicemember and his canine Wrangler search a target vessel during a joint training exercise, Nov. 5, 2019 (USCG)

In 2003, the Coast Guard initiated the modern Canine Program with 12 teams at Auburn University, in Alabama. In 2005, the program began training alongside its Department of Homeland Security partners at the Customs and Border Protection school in Front Royal, Virginia. In 2011, Coast Guard canine teams began receiving their initial training through the Transportation and Security Administration’s National Explosive Detection Canine Program, at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

For a canine team, the program begins with a 12-week course that instructs handlers on caring for and training their canine partners. Handlers and their dogs are trained to detect explosive odors on vessels, aircraft, railroad cars, automobiles, luggage, packages, and airline terminals. To graduate, the teams must achieve a 100 percent odor detection rating during a final evaluation in all search areas. After graduation, the teams return to their units where they develop specialized skills required by their respective ports. Handlers are also required to obtain qualifications in Emergency Vehicle Operations, Boarding Officer Certified Ashore, Canine Tactical Combat Casualty Care, and other certifications required by the Maritime Enforcement Specialist rating.

PO2 Michael Reklis and his canine partner Ali, from the Canine Explosive Detection Team at Maritime Safety and Security Team Kings Bay, rest before conducting hoist training Mar. 29, 2018 (USCG)

Coast Guard members of Maritime Safety and Security Team 91106 in New York, conduct explosives detection operations with canines Ruthie and Ryder during the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, September 21, 2016 (USCG)

Coast Guard canine teams maintain specialized skills to do their part in the Maritime Homeland Security mission set. In addition to deploying in austere environments far offshore, the canines must perform searches in tight spaces and, sometimes, loud engine rooms. In addition to these shipboard challenges, the canines must ascend and descend ladders to gain access to compartments deep inside vessels. Assuring that canines can search effectively in these environments takes months of training for the dogs and handlers.


Feco, a Hungarian Vizsla single purpose bomb dog and his handler, PO1 Cory Sumner, U.S. Coast Guard District 11 Maritime Safety and Security Team, are hoisted onto a HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter, June 15, 2020 (USCG)

Vertical Delivery (VDEL) is the capability to deploy Canine Explosive Detection Teams (CEDTs) to vessels offshore via helicopter. This capability sets them apart from their Department of Homeland Security counterparts by enabling the Coast Guard teams to quickly and safely interdict vessels at sea. This capability also allows Coast Guard operational commanders to ensure the safety of U.S. ports by extending their reach hundreds of miles offshore from American ports.

VDEL from a helicopter requires complete trust between the handler and his canine partner. This trust is built over years. During these years, the canine learns that the handler will not endanger them unless absolutely necessary to preserve human life. Before a canine team can be deployed from a helicopter, the handler has to acclimate his canine partner to the sights, sounds and smells of a loud airborne asset. Additionally, after qualifying, the teams must train regularly for operational readiness and deployment at any time.

In addition to their helicopter delivery capability, the teams perform Vessel-to-Vessel Hoisting. Coast Guard canine handlers become subject matter experts in the practice of hoisting their canine partners from one vessel to another while underway. Again, the teams conduct rigorous training under dangerous conditions, including night-time and inclement weather deployments to ensure readiness for this vital mission.


Coast Guard maritime law enforcement specialists hoist Sirius, an explosive detection dog, alongside the moored Jeremiah O’Brien at Pier 45 in San Francisco, Friday, Aug. 19, 2011 (USCG)

CEDTs also support local, state and federal agencies during National Special Security Events, large public events, and as VIP protective services. Coast Guard CEDTs have ensured the security of thousands of people through explosives detection at such events as the Super Bowl, Rose Bowl Game and Parade, and Navy Fleet Week events. Working alongside their U.S. Secret Service partners, Coast Guard canine teams have also ensured the safety of diplomats, kings, first ladies and presidents, at such events as the State of the Union Address, United Nations General Assembly, and Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

One hallmark of the Coast Guard Canine Program is the policy allowing handlers to take their canine partners home with them. Other military services’ canine teams require their dogs to live in kennels for the duration of their service. The fact that Coast Guard canines live with their handlers greatly strengthens the trust vital to the success of the team when conducting high-risk missions.

Today’s Coast Guard has 18 globally deployable CEDTs. They are assigned to the service’s Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs) and Maritime Security and Response Teams (MSRTs) strategically positioned throughout the United States. These highly-trained canine teams are capable of deploying from helicopters and watercraft to meet a variety of onshore and offshore threats.

Adm. Karl Schultz, the commandant of the Coast Guard, pets Bingo, a German shorthaired pointer stationed at Maritime Security Response Team West, during a drug offload from Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf in San Diego, Sep. 10, 2020 (USCG)

Throughout its history, the Coast Guard Canine Program has adapted and evolved to the changing times much like the Coast Guard. The canines and handlers remain just as critical to our national security today as they did when the first dogs went into service in World War II.

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.