Bring K9 Abel home: From Combat to Diplomat

This is K9 Abel! He and I are an explosives detection team at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

     Abel and I have served our country and now that we’re no longer needed we’re being sent back. I’ll go home and make a new life for myself and Abel will go back to the kennel where he would normally wait for my return, but this time, I wont. I will never again get to see the excitement in his whole body when I walk through the kennel door after a disheartening month apart. Unless there’s a change of heart...

     I was assigned to Abel in October of 2018. He had been with the company for less than two months as indicated by his records and there was basically little more in the notes than that he knew how to sniff and pulled really hard.  I was told by the trainer at one point that Abel pulled so hard that it injured the trainer and required a visit to medical. What I saw was that Abel had drive and I was going to make the most of it!

     I was never told the exact protocols that the company used to introduce Abel to odors but it was my perception that, based on my experience with several years of training and handling dogs, his proficiency was lacking but I only had one month to spend with him before we were to go to the certification test.  I wanted Abel to learn how to trust me and interact with the world in an incredibly intimate, intense, and confident way in the least amount of time possible. The first night with Abel, I immediately started a training regimen that was reward based, utilizing his food for marker/reward based training and several different types of toys for several different types of jobs. This taught Abel how to explore and interact with the world in a more curious and problem solving way. With so many different types of rewards for specific jobs, Abel never got bored and his drive was always high. Every behavior I asked of him was rewarded and instead of using a choke chain or other pain based pieces of equipment (which I have never used with Abel) waiting for the right behavior and using verbal markers were used to make it a driven decision to do things and not a compulsive one.

     The training and experiences I exposed Abel to outside of the training facility truly accelerated his performance far beyond everyone’s expectations as it was told to me by others. It took an enormous amount of patience, but all of the personal time and energy I used developed a dog that has received praise to the highest degree everywhere we go. In an industry of high volume Canine team training and development, merely achieving the minimum standard seems to have become a greater focus than pushing each K9 team to reach their maximal potential.  I get it, it’s not worth the risk when not every handler has the time, the patience, the resources, and/or the skill to train to that degree when it’s not absolutely necessary. At a basic level, a handler is taught how to read and recognize the body language of a dog to identify a change of behavior in the presence of explosive odor. Handlers courses don’t generally take the time to teach extensive canine psychology and behavior modification, utilizing the latest in scientific findings, to the point of mastery. The chance for a handler to undo or counter the conditioning done by a trainer and create issues is far too easy. Therefore, it’s generally the smart move to set a minimum standard and achieve the most profitable success.

     However, as the person at the end of the leash doing a job that bears the risk of paying the ultimate sacrifice I have never had it in me to do “just enough” to pass a test. I see the bigger picture.  If I don’t give all that I can to what I’m doing and something bad were to happen, I would hope to die so I wouldn’t have to bear the burden of knowing that I could have done more.  All I want is to constantly and progressively find my own boundaries and push them while being supported by a team of people who are just as, or more, driven and capable than I. Out on the front lines, what really matters is that what we’re doing is defending others from those who would attempt to kill or maim with explosives for a terrorist cause.  All for the low cost of a small amount of patience, a rubber ball, and a couple handfuls of kibble. I love my job, the people I’ve gotten to meet, and the things that I’ve learned.  But most of all, I love the dogs that sacrifice themselves, unwittingly, to support ideas larger than they could ever comprehend yet, perceive as nothing more than a fun game.

     My concern now is that there’s a seemingly incredible amount of disregard for the mental well being of canine and handler. Abel and I spent the last year living in an 85 sq/ft room sharing almost every second together. For those that truly care, the amount of connection and bonding that develops makes separation a truly painful one, even if its just for a period of leave. But to go to a combat zone where there were direct rocket attacks, suicide vest attacks, and vehicle borne explosive attacks to use a creature that I built and bonded with only to have a corporate entity say that this equipment isn’t for retirement, adoption, or even for sale for any amount of money adds to the distress and feeling of disregard that combat veterans like myself deal with on a daily basis. At this point I’m expected to hand over this “contract furnished equipment” without resistance, in the middle of the night, and get on a plane back home and not receive so much as a “thank you” for what I’ve done. All the while, knowing that I’ll likely never interact with Abel again. If I do, it will be after Abel spends several more years of experience on some unknown contract, with some other handler, near the end of his “serviceable” life. I have earned a new word recently from some particularly supportive people that feels about right... Chattel.  

    With your support, it’s my goal to raise an amount of funds that would be undeniable for a company to decline. With your financial assistance, I hope to purchase Abel from the company so that we may pursue bigger and better things. It is my goal to certify Abel as a service and therapy dog, partner with multiple foundations, and share him with as much of the world as I possibly can. 

     If I am presented with an offer for purchase, a portion of the funds beyond the actual purchase price of Abel will be used to help him transition from the contracting world into a life of service. This will include setting up future medical costs, the logistics of getting him home, and the costs associated with the care and housing of Abel. The remaining funds will be donated to the Rescue 22 Foundation 

    If, for some reason we arrive at the worst possible outcome and I never get to see Abel again, all proceeds will be donated to the Rescue 22 Foundation. If I can’t have the dog that I built an insane bond with and share it with others, I at least want others to have a taste of what I had.

    And one last thing! If we can accomplish our goal and get Abel home, I would like to offer the top three contributors, within the continental United States, an opportunity where I would travel to you to spend a day with Abel, get to meet and truly experience the dog that I describe, and take some high quality photos with him that we can share with the world. 

Thank you all for taking the time to consider supporting the challenge we face. If you are unable to support financially, sharing this page and our story would be an enormous help.

Feel free to head over to our instagram account @rickw84  to see all of these picture and more and follow our day to day story.
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Richard White-Pickett 
Vancouver, WA
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