Working dog returns to duty after 20-foot fall
By Staff Sgt. Kali L. Gradishar, 460th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 02, 2012
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- After more than a month of rehabilitation, Pier, a 460th Security Forces Squadron military working dog, is fully recovered, back to work and ready to sniff out potential dangers.
Pier plunged approximately 20 feet while conducting a search of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus following the July 20 shooting at an Aurora movie theater that killed 12 and injured nearly 60 people.
Handler Staff Sgt. Marque Daniels, 460th SFS, and Pier were conducting a sweep of the facility's second floor when he sent the dog on a routine task. Approximately six hours into the pair's workday, the search took a bad turn.
"Fatigue happened," said Daniels, who has worked with Pier since July 11, 2011. "It was fatigue and miscommunication, in my perspective, between us. I did something called a send away. ... It's like a scan. It's a little bit safer so you don't exactly step into the exposed area that hasn't been searched."
The pair regularly practices the scan where Daniels sends Pier to search an area. They work based on behavioral changes upon the dog's return to the handler to determine if hazards are present. Instead of returning to his handler during the search of Anschutz, however, Pier continued over a 4-foot wall.
"From there he just kept going, and I can't really blame him. He's practiced that as well - to go a certain amount of distance, leap over obstacles, walk up an obstacle. I guess the only thing I can think of is due to fatigue and muscle memory he ended up just taking that jump," explained Daniels with clear concern for his canine partner. "I underestimated his fatigue level and his physical ability. You have no one else to blame but you - you as the handler. He did the task that he was taught."
Daniels' response to Pier's leap was one of instant anguish.
Though he isn't fond of profanity, there was a lot of it, said the handler. "I pretty much lost my cool. I just saw my best friend leap over what I knew was a very high wall, and then a long drop. ... Fortunately he was up and moving. It was a real blessing that nothing broke."
Pier's most serious injury was a sprained neck. While the dog's injuries weren't fatal, the two handled the incident in separate ways - Daniels feeling uneasy about the incident and the dog's recovery and Pier taking advantage of the extra loving he received.
"Pier took it pretty good, I guess. He was sore. He laid up on the couch. He had toys. He was pampered," said Tech. Sgt. Justin Baker, 460th SFS kennel master, who explained the pair's relationship as one of the best in the kennels. "Sergeant Daniels took it pretty rough in the beginning, and even now because we give him a hard time about it.
"I think Daniels probably had the worst of it emotionally," added Baker, who oversees all kennel operations and describes his position as the man in charge of the dogs that find drugs and bombs and bite people.
Following Pier's incident, dog and handler became even more inseparable. Daniels catered to Pier's every need during more than a month of kennel rest, taking him to water therapy by recommendation of a friend and ensuring the dog received his medications and much needed physical rest as prescribed by the base veterinarian.
"Just to give you an idea of what a sprained neck would do for a dog, it's like severe back pain for a person. It involves vertebrae and it involves his whole body movement, especially the upper half," explained Daniels, who has more than two years of handler experience. "It's very painful for a dog, and rehabilitation was a necessity at that point. (Rehab was) an emotional battle - a type of thing that makes you rethink everything that you're doing."
Fortunate for Daniels, though, he had the support of his peers and leadership encouraging and reassuring him, he said. The fall also gave him deeper insight into the relationship between him and his companion.
"It just gives you an idea of how important the relationship is between the man and the canine," Daniels claimed. "It gave me a chance to understand how to really rehabilitate a dog. One of the things that really didn't shock me is the dog doesn't know that they're hurt, but seeing him incapable of moving and the moaning and the whimpering - he was hurt but he still wanted to play.
"After two weeks going into it and him getting off the drugs and going through the therapy, he was getting back to his mental normal self; but physically he did not understand that he needs to slow down," Daniels added.
For a relationship based off changes in behavior and certain body movements, it took time for the pair to get their groove back. Though Pier was mentally ready to go, rehabilitation was immensely important to get him physically ready to work. And returning to duty meant a weight lifted off Daniels' shoulders as he helped his partner back in the fight.
"I'm very fortunate Pier's doing well. A lot of prayer went into it. A lot of emotional burden had lifted once I saw his recovery," Daniels said. "I feel different about balconies, but other than that we're back to rigorously training.
"He's a smart dog," he said emphatically. "So getting back into the swing of things isn't really a problem. ... The dog is a workaholic. He doesn't know when to stop."