Enhancing Military Working Dog’s performance: The 341st Training Squadron’s new enrichment program

  • Published
  • By Jonathan Cotto
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs

The bond between a military working dog and their handlers is not only crucial for mission success, but also essential for the well-being of the dedicated canines. Recognizing this, the 341st Training Squadron has launched an enrichment program aimed at optimizing the mental, physical, and psychological development of their MWDs.

The program stems from a deep-seated commitment within the 341st to continually enhance the lives and training of their MWDs. Understanding that peak performance from these loyal four-legged warriors is vital to support the mission and safeguard the nation, the 341st has embraced the challenge of implementing innovative strategies to achieve this goal.

One significant milestone in this endeavor was the adoption of the Defense Health Agency Military Working Dog Kennel Management Principles and Procedures, published as Air Force policy in November 2023. Air Force Instruction 31-26 Department of the Air Force Guidance Memorandum 2023-01 DoD Military Working Dog Program now mandates the provision of physical, social, and cognitive enrichment programs for MWDs, emphasizing the importance of holistic care in maximizing their potential.

Stacy Manns, an animal caretaker supervisor who has been working at the training squadron for almost a decade says, the enrichment effort has been at least eight years in the making. The supervisor states she had pitched an enrichment program and is glad it is now being implemented.

“I am super excited about it, it really means a lot, to stimulate the dogs’ brain in different ways so that they get to experience a lot of different things while they’re here,” Manns said.

The enrichment program encompasses a range of activities designed to stimulate the MWDs various sensory modalities:

Olfactory Enrichment: Rotation of essential oils and other scents sprayed throughout the kennels and compound enriches the MWDs’ olfactory experiences, providing mental stimulation.

Visual Stimulation: Lights, blowers, and inflatable holiday decorations serve as visual stimuli, adding vibrancy to the MWDs’ environment.

Auditory Enrichment: Music played throughout the yard during feeding times engages the MWDs’ auditory senses, creating a soothing ambiance conducive to relaxation and focus.

Bubble Play: Safe, scented, and flavored bubbles offer a multi-sensory experience, combining olfactory, visual, and play elements to enhance the MWDs’ enjoyment and cognitive engagement.

Herding Ball: An optional play enrichment in the yard provides MWDs with physical exercise and mental stimulation, promoting both fitness and mental agility.

Mann says she incorporated techniques learned through her years of zoological work to develop the enrichment applications.

“When you work with animals at a zoo you don’t have the luxury of being able to walk them on a leash every day,” Mann said. “So, you need to be able to stimulate their brains in multiple ways, so I applied the United States Department of Agriculture enrichment guidelines for captive animals and tailored that to our canine population that we have here.”

The 341st TRS commander, Maj. Jordan Criss, says they deeply care about their MWDs and are continuously looking for ways to optimize the MWDs’ well-being and performance.

“We will continue to build upon the foundations laid from recommendations offered by the Holland Vet Clinic and our team’s ingenuity on how to execute the intent with the resources on hand,” Criss said.

Looking ahead, the commander says they are already planning to further enhance and modernize the enrichment program. Future initiatives include incorporating a rotary dog walker and exercise kennel runs. Mann says there is already a rotary dog walker that is operational at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., so they know it works.

“The rotary dog walker will not only be an opportunity to socialize the dogs safely, but they will get the right amount of exercise needed to reduce unwanted behaviors,” Mann said. “ We will be able to multiply the number of dogs that are exercised daily, we have over 800 dogs, but we do not have 800 care takers, so it will be very helpful.”

The squadron commander states, data collection and analysis will be ongoing to assess the impact of the program.

“We will gather and analyze data to make informed decisions on what activities are proving most beneficial, while reducing injury and illnesses comparative to previous trends prior to the existence of the program,” Criss said.

The enrichment program represents a commitment to the holistic care and development of military working dogs. By prioritizing mental, physical, and psychological enrichment, the training squadron not only enhances the well-being of these invaluable assets but also strengthens their capabilities to support mission success.