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K2 Solutions offers glimpse of military dog-training research

DERBY, N.C. — The sprawling training center near the borders of Richmond, Montgomery and Moore counties has a decidedly military air.

Four-legged trainees trot along a dirt road that loops through the 125-acre facility. Others are put through drills by instructors that, in many cases, are former special operators.

Here, near the small Richmond County community of Derby, working dogs are trained to protect soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan and serve with law enforcement across the nation.

The facility, operated by K2 Solutions Inc., is on the cutting edge of the working dog community.

That's what drew dozens of the world's leaders in canine science and technology to the training center Friday, as part of a week-long conference in Raleigh.

The 2014 Canine S&T Workshop drew more than 140 experts from across the world, said Stephen Lee, chief scientist at the U.S. Army Research Office in Research Triangle Park.

Lee said the workshop brings together researchers and a lot of the funding is provided through the Department of Defense.

"It's very important," Lee said of partnerships between academia, the government and private companies like K2 Solutions.

"I'm very excited about the research that's ongoing," he said. "Working dogs do things that robots can't do and may never do."

Participants toured the training center and a separate veterinary hospital in West End. Both are run by Southern Pines-based K2 Solutions, which was hailed for its success in training working dogs for the military.

But with the war in Afghanistan winding down, the company isn't resting on its laurels. It's adapting.

Lane Kjellsen, an Army veteran who founded the company in 2003, said K2 has won more than 130 classified and unclassified contracts.

The first contract was helping with research aimed at detecting improvised explosive devices, he said.

K2 has continued to adapt since then, opening its canine training center in 2010. It has helped deploy hundreds of teams to Afghanistan.

With some contracts ending in just a few months, Kjellsen said the adaptation continues.

Pilot programs to provide advanced training to Marine Corps and Army handlers are ongoing, and K2 Solutions-trained dogs may one day help secure military installations, he said. The company has been expanding its contracts with law enforcement agencies and recently opened its veterinary hospital to the public.

The company also is focusing on a newer type of search.

The Person-Borne detector program teaches dogs to sift through large crowds without alerting a potential terrorist.

Officials said a trained dog could weave through crowds and then alert their handlers without drawing the attention of the suspect, allowing law enforcement time to move in on the target with as little confrontation as possible.

"Those dogs are working all the time. Whether you realize it or not," Kjellsen said.

At the training center, a tour included kennels and training areas designed to help condition dogs to difficult and unknown environments.

Demonstrations included showing how a dog on a military patrol would look for a bomb and showing how one dog can search two vehicles spread across a large field in a matter of seconds.

The training center also houses specialized equipment, including an environmental chamber that allows dogs to acclimate to temperatures as low as 20 degrees or as high as 120 degrees.

In another room, dogs are introduced to as many surfaces and noises as possible to help condition them to otherwise distracting environments.

While one dog sorted through a cubicle filled with plastic bottles, others sat in their kennels while a recording of a chain saw played.

Kjellsen is an advocate for realistic training and pushed the academics to do the same.

"The scientific community spends a lot of time trying to simulate," he said. "We're focused on realism. We're focused on real training."

The real training also leads to real treatment, officials said.

Dana Vamvakias, K2's chief veterinarian, runs its Vanguard Veterinary Hospital.

With proper treatment and better conditioning, physical ailments that plague many working dogs could be avoided, she said.

The Vanguard facility houses state-of-the-art medical equipment and emergency rooms and full rehabilitation and sports medicine center.

Vamvakias said it boils down to early identification of injuries and treatment to strengthen muscles and prevent injuries.

"It's just like you would be if you were an athlete," she said.

brooksd@fayobserver.com

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