- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Darko sniffed the new bags lying on the ground for a minute before he was satisfied and dropped at Jake’s feet.

“He’ll just sniff everything,” said Jake Beebe, a U.S. Army veteran K-9 handler who served two tours in Afghanistan. “It’s almost his main sensory organ.”

Darko, a German Shorthair Pointer born in Belgium, is an SSD dog - specialized search dog - raised and trained by Jake since he was 9 months old.

“With specialized search dog training, because Jake trained him, it would be wherever (Jake) would go, Darko would stay with him,” said Khryshell Beebe. “In a regular K-9, the dogs go to the units and they all have different handlers. As the handler leaves, the dog stays.”

An SSD dog is not trained to attack or guard an area. Instead, Darko’s sole job was to find explosives and was usually sent ahead of a group of soldiers to clear the path. Jake and Darko were paired with Special Forces in Afghanistan.

“Literally the first day I landed with my Special Forces group, I went out with him and we found around 100 lbs. of homemade explosive,” Jake said. “Besides that, it was really rather small stuff. I call it being lucky.”

SSD handlers are rare in the military, Jake said, as the majority of dogs have attack training. Darko’s class had 13 people, while the other K-9 unit had about 30. Because Darko stayed with Jake for years, his bond was closer than those at other units.

“You stop seeing him as a dog after a year,” he said. “You get kind of a different attachment to him than a regular dog. It’s just a different relationship.”

Not every soldier can be a dog handler, Jake said. After getting high scores in his unit, he was offered the slot.

“The kennel master came down and offered me the school slot, and that’s about all it took,” he said. “I never thought I’d be a dog handler. I always had a dog growing up, but (Darko) was the first dog I ever trained.”

Jake was placed in a five-month program - the first half learning how to train a dog, and the second half actually teaching him. The training is similar to teaching a dog for bird hunting - it’s all about using the nose. Off-leash training is also included, Jake said.

“Nobody wants to be on a 7-foot leash when you’re checking for a bomb,” he said.

Darko wasn’t the only dog Jake started to train. The handlers would start off with two dogs and select the best dog about halfway through the program.

“When you get (to training), they give you two dogs, and whichever one you bond better with you keep going with.” Jake said. “I had another black lab, but it was pretty obvious I would keep with Darko.”

Although Jake trained and deployed with Darko, his career wasn’t over. A second handler without a dog came and went on another deployment with Darko for about two years before Darko was retired at age seven.

“The way it typically works is the handler at the time, (the Army) tries to see if that handler wants to adopt the dog when it’s up for retirement” Khryshell said. “If that person can’t do it, they try to stick with going through previous handlers so that way they can make sure the dog goes back to someone that they know.”

Jake knew immediately that Darko was coming to Wyoming when he heard of the retirement.

“At that stage of the game, if I would have to walk to get him, I would have,” he said.

Darko moved in with the Beebes a few weeks ago, and he fit right in, Khryshell said, even though she was hesitant at first.

“He’s always been around the bigger, military working dogs and not around our smaller dogs or kids,” she said. “I was a little worried how he would be the first few days, but he fit right into the house.”

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Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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