K-9s are known to be a huge help to police officers across the country, but overseas they're also helping protect U.S. military troops. Before they're deployed, the dogs are trained right here in East Tennessee to sniff out bombs and landmines.
Sterling Global Operations Inc. is based in Lenoir City, and trains the dogs at a kennel in Sweetwater. Currently, 32 dogs are in the program.
"We want that dog that would probably drive the average person crazy in their own home. The dog that if the tennis ball were in the sofa, you would come home to find the sofa in about 50 different pieces. That's the type of dog we want. We want that dog with a high play drive and a high hunt drive," said Ed Abel, the Corporate K-9 Program Manager.
Abel said they start training the dogs between 8 weeks and six months, depending on their behavior.
"With all of the technology that we have, with all of the devices, the military, the department of defense, and I believe the ATF, without a doubt, hands down, the dogs are the most reliable detection tool," said Abel.
Dogs are known for their noses, but Abel said it's an even more powerful sense than most people know.
"If any of us were to walk into the kitchen, and we were to smell stew, and we smell stew cooking, we smell stew," said Abel. "The dog smells the beef, the potatoes, the carrots, the liquid, each individual thing. That's how finite their sense of smell is."
The majority of dogs trained are German Shepards that are used to find explosives in luggage, vehicles at security checkpoints, and landmines.
"We just had one about three and a half, four weeks ago in Afghanistan, find a landmine," said Abel. "I mean we find hundreds of landmines, but for every one that we find, that's someone's little child, keeping their limbs and lives safe."
The dogs are also trained to protect their handlers from intruders or attackers.
"The dog knows what his job is. He will go out, he will hold the decoy at bay, and will not bite the decoy until the decoy threatens the dog or the handler," said Abel.
Abel said a few years ago, the training helped protect him and his wife from a man who was trying to break into a vehicle when they were in Afghanistan.
"The dog prevented him from getting in the vehicle, and he without a doubt was there to cause harm. So that was one personal experience," said Abel.
Currently, 56 dogs are deployed in Afghanistan, 16 in Kabul, and 12 in Belize, according to Abel.
"I mean it's a dangerous situation in any of these countries, but it would be much much greater without the use of the dogs," said Abel.
Twelve K-9s are expected to go overseas in the next three months.
Before they are trained, Abel said they all tested for temperament, workability, and have blood work done.
"These are athletes, we have to make sure that they are at their optimal health," said Abel. "There's a lot of misconceptions that these are mean dogs. That's the furthest thing from the truth. As soon as training is over, they'll be the sweetest dogs, on your lap begging for attention."
Abel said there are dozens of defense contracting companies similar to Sterling Global Operations Inc., but the East Tennessee company is the only one that trains its own dogs.