Flight becomes first foster unit to military working puppy

by Patrick Desmond
37th Training Wing Public Affairs

6/18/2009 - LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFNS)  – After three weeks, the newest member of the 37th Force Support Squadron Airman and Family Readiness Flight knows her way around the three-story building and often bounds through open doors on surprise visits.

Aamee, a four-month old Belgian Malinois, is the first puppy to be fostered by a unit at Lackland through the military working dog foster program.
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Sharon Witter and Master Sgt. Don Friemel, both with the 37th Force Support Squadron, go over paperwork while Aamee plays with a tennis ball. The Airman and Family Readiness Flight is fostering Aamee, exposing her to a variety of social settings, and caring for her until she is ready for military working dog training. (U.S. Air Force photo/Robbin Cresswell)

The foster program socializes potential working dogs to different people and environments to prepare them for a life of various handlers and locations. Aamee has been with the flight on a pilot test since May 1.

Sharon Witter, Airman and Family Readiness Flight chief, said it provides a different work atmosphere.

“It is a stress reliever, I think, for everybody,” she said. “We definitely have to communicate more. You can’t just leave her alone.”

When broaching the program’s pilot test of unit care, Ms. Witter, a dog lover with two of her own, admitted she likes to do things a little differently and jumped at the chance to support the program.

“When I started thinking about doing this for the office, I saw it as a win-win for everyone involved,” she said. “The puppy gets the attention and socialization, and the Department of Defense puppy foster program wins. Eventually they will go do their job as a military working dog. They are just military working puppies right now.”

The deciding factor was the ability to split responsibility between Ms. Witter, Master Sgts. Jason Hohenstreiter and Don Friemel, both assigned to the Readiness Flight, with the program’s option for joint custody.

“(Adopting a puppy) can be a really big undertaking,” Sergeant Hohenstreiter said. “Being able to take a break works out better for everybody, especially for the dog. Then the dog is getting all the attention it needs and is not becoming a burden.”

Aamee, knows her way around the building, but she is getting to know the base as well. She’s gone to commander’s call, Veterans in the Classroom training and the Skylark Bowling Center.

“People love the visits,” Ms. Witter said. “The puppy draws a crowd. We don’t have to say ‘Hey, here, look! It’s the puppy!’ The more visibility we provide her, the more people see her and the more people understand the program and ask about it.”

The foster program requires constant puppy supervision and specific guidelines for care.

“You are trying to prepare the dog for training,” Sergeant Hohenstreiter said. “You are getting it ready for school, almost like pre-K; you just want to help them develop the skills that are going to help them succeed.”

Ms. Witter said the large kennel whether in the office or at home, is the puppy’s main base so she gets accustomed to living in tight quarters.

“She has to eat and sleep in her crate,” she said. “That’s her home whether it’s in my house or in Iraq. They want her to be comfortable in that adjustment.”

Even playtime is more about building motor skills than having fun. Sergeant Hohenstreiter said playing fetch has rules; too, you never pull the tennis ball out of her mouth.

Describing tug-o-war, Ms. Witter added, “Puppy always wins.”

Though caring for Aamee is demanding of time and patience, Ms. Witter said she’s looking at the big picture.

“One day she might save a life; that’s what these puppies are eventually trained to do in Iraq, Afghanistan or even an airport,” she said. “When I see the grown dogs doing their thing, I’m just amazed and in awe of how they do it. Now, to be a part of how they develop and how they get there, it’s just a good feeling.”

Aamee returns to the military working dog program in August to undergo patrol or drug and explosive detection training.

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