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From Afghanistan to Ala., military dogs get retirement fit for a hero

When Kyle Cruse takes his German shepherd, Drako, for a walk around Oxford Lake, he has to be quick snapping on the leash. Otherwise, the shaggy, doe-eyed dog begins to methodically inspect each car in the parking lot.

“He thinks he has to sniff all the cars for bombs,” explained Cruse.

Playing in the creek or chasing his ball around the park, Drako might be mistaken for just another family pet. But this pet was trained in explosives detection and deployed to Afghanistan to work under contract for the U.S. military.

Cruse adopted him from Piper’s Rescue in March, one month after the retired working dog returned home, along with 91 of his four-legged co-workers, in an unprecedented mass transport that ended right here in Anniston.

Watching Drako’s transition from working dog to pet has been a joy for the first-time “dog father,” as Cruse calls himself. “When I first got him home, he wouldn’t come out of his kennel,” he said. “But once he understood I was the one taking care of him, he knew he was home.”

Homeward bound

Transporting 92 dogs 7,000 miles through three different countries is no small undertaking. But in February of this year, the staff of AMK9 Academy, the Anniston training facility of the world’s largest canine security company, did just that.

“It all started with AMK9’s logistics department,” said director of canine welfare Elaine Carter. Tisha Mullen, logistics and procurement manager, coordinated with various countries, customs and airline services to bring home the dogs, the majority of them patrol and detection dogs at the end of their government contracts.

“There’s a tremendous amount of preparation that goes into it,” said Carter. “When you’re moving dogs, any delay is potentially a huge problem.”

After meeting in New York City, Carter and Mullen flew to Jordan, where, after a several-hour layover, they headed to Afghanistan in an otherwise empty Boeing 747. The return trip would be much more crowded.

The plane stopped to pick up dogs first in Bagram, then in Kandahar.  Kennels were loaded onto the plane by “kennel masters,” many of whom were enlisted to travel back with the dogs as far as the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan. There, each dog was walked and supplies replenished before boarding the flight back to New York. That task alone, Carter said, took close to four hours, even with the kennel masters’ assistance.

Back in the United States, a convoy of trailers, pickups and one cattle truck modified to accommodate 40 kennels set out early the next morning on the final leg of the journey. With stops every three to four hours to check on the 92 passengers, the entourage pulled into Anniston 19 hours later.

Retirement plan

Most of the dogs on the original transport were eventually redeployed on new contracts at home and abroad. But 38 dogs were made available for adoption through Piper’s Rescue. All found homes: 17 in Alabama and the rest across the country, out west as far as California and as far north as Massachusetts, according to Piper’s owner Sara Hare.

“We give Piper’s a detailed list of dogs’ needs, the environment they are suited for, and Sara does a great job of finding homes that fit each individual dog,” said Carter.

The rescue group, which is on Noble Street, made a few adjustments to prepare for its new clientele. Several staff members, including Hare, went through training classes at the AMK9 Academy. The standard adoption application jumped from two pages to seven, and required four notarized signatures. The retired working dogs are so strong that the rescue had to invest in new kennels. “We call them ‘Hannibal Lecter’ kennels,” said Hare. “They’re pretty much inescapable.”

But more than anything, retired K9s have the same needs as any rescue dog: “We teach them how to love, how to relax and not have to work all the time,” Hare said. “Some are easier than others, but every dog is a process. It’s just a matter of taking the right steps. That’s the big thing to understand.”

Piper’s Rescue continues to keep five slots reserved for AMK9 retirees that are no longer fit for duty, either due to medical issues or because they’ve simply reached the age of retirement.

A hero's reward

Then there are cases like Drako.

Trained in explosive detection, Drako passed his training classes with flying colors, but when he arrived in Afghanistan, “He just decided he didn’t want to work anymore,” Hare said. “He was only 4 years old with no medical issues. He’d just rather play.”

While that made the German shepherd less than ideal as a working dog, it made him popular with potential adopters. Hare said she selected 27-year-old Oxford EMT Kyle Cruse for the one-on-one time he could provide. “The question always comes down to what’s best for the dog, and especially with Drako being as sweet and playful as he is, we wanted that for him.”

Unlike his gig overseas, retirement seems to suit Drako. He no longer has to work for his reward.

“Even though he was bred for it, his natural tendency is not to go to work every day,” said Cruse. “Now he can just take it easy. … He’s a 3-year-old for life.”

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© 2014 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.).  Distributed by MCT Information Services

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