It didn’t take Sergeant Micah Jones long to warm up to E-6 Marine Staff Sergeant Summer in 2014.
In fact, it was love at first sight for both of these military veterans when they set eyes on each other for the first time at Dulles International Airport on a cold December night.
The rapport and public respect they’ve garnered since then has been nothing short of astounding. For the last few years, Sgt. Jones and K-9 Summer, a Labrador Retriever and Explosives Detection Dog, have helped maintain safety at Washington Union Station in D.C. and on Amtrak trains traveling to Baltimore and Alexandria, Virginia.
In recognition of their service, Summer and Jones have been named winners of the 2019 AKC Humane Fund Award For Canine Excellence (ACE) in the “Uniformed Service K-9” category. The pair will be recognized at the AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin in Orlando, Florida, in December.
K-9 Veteran: Meet Veteran Canine
“It seemed like a natural fit from the start,” says Jones, an Air Force veteran who was on active duty from 1994-2000.
Deployed in South America, Japan, Europe, and Afghanistan, working with military dogs at each stop. Jones was first hired by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Police Department in 2003. He became involved in K-9 work for a short time before being activated by the Air Force Reserve and deployed abroad.
In 2004, prior to deployment, he was paired with Blecky, a German Shepherd Dog, at Lackland Air Force Base, where all military dogs are trained. Following that assignment, the two were reunited in late 2008 and worked together with the Amtrak Police Department until 2013.
The 9-year-old yellow Lab has put her life on the line, too. Summer served in Afghanistan in 2012, searching for and identifying explosive devices and weapons caches. She also swept and cleared routes for the troops and was involved in firefights with insurgents. This war-zone exposure ultimately led to a diagnosis of canine PTSD and eventual reassignment. Around the same time, Blecky was nearing retirement, and Jones began to file paperwork for a replacement.
“I received a call giving me a choice between a female Lab and a male Belgian Malinois,” he says. “That was a no-brainer considering the environment I work in. Blecky was an Alpha and I have worked with Malinois before. This time I wanted a breed that was not intimidating and would allow me to work in close quarters with the public.”
Love At First Lick
Jones fondly recalls the very first time he met Summer in Washington D.C.
“She was flown to Dulles in the belly of the plane. When I released her that night, she was a bundle of energy,” says Jones. “As soon as she hit the grass, she got the zoomies and began running full stride. After doing about 15 circles, she came over to me and put her two front paws on my chest and began to lick my face. She wouldn’t stop, as if she was saying, ‘You are my savior.’ When I looked at her records, I discovered the date she retired from the military was my birthday – April 24. I knew this girl was special and our pairing was meant to be.”
While the transition to a new dog went smoothly for Jones, there was still the matter of ushering in a totally new training regimen. While on deployment, Summer worked off-lead, but her new environment would require her to stay on a 6-foot leash.
“At first, she would pull me to where the training aid was planted, but would then not respond,” Jones recalls. “To prompt a response, I would order her to sit and offer her a reward – a tennis ball. Through many repetitions and hours of training, she began to associate finding the device, sitting and the tennis-ball reward.”
The duo conducted a lot of open-area training, where items were placed in the middle of a field. Downwind direction was used as an advantage, and Jones allowed Summer the independence to take him to the source. In doing so, the handler was removing himself from the equation, with the goal being for alerting to become “all dog.”
Working Like A Dog
Summer and Jones live in Mount Airy, Maryland, about an hour, or 47-mile, commute away from work.
“When I put on the uniform and attach her harness, she knows it’s go-time,” says Jones. “It’s like flipping a switch. It’s a perfect commute distance for Summer to get some rest while I segue into a mindset for work in the morning. The return trip home gives us a chance to unwind after a busy 10-12-hour day.”
Most days Summer and Jones, the K-9 unit supervisor for 10-plus teams, stand by the door leading out to the platform at Union Station, where the gate ushers check train tickets. They also conduct explosive-device searches on the Baltimore and Alexandria Amtrak runs. If there are unattended bags reported, they clear the area before Summer sniffs them thoroughly and deems them safe.
Summer’s only positive alert thus far has a humorous twist. Several years ago, Jones was scanning Union Station passengers’ bags when the K-9 suddenly stopped alongside an elderly couple’s suitcase.
“I assessed the situation and requested they move away from the piece,” he recalls. “The gentleman stated he had a heart medication in his luggage. Due to the nitrates in the drug, from the canine’s perspective, that is call for an alert. Summer could not differentiate those from the same in an explosive material to which she is trained to alert. The couple understood why she reacted and were relieved she had that great of a nose.”
Looking at Summer, there’s no mistaking the loyal Lab as anything other than a working dog. Her harness consists of a full array of military decor, including an Afghanistan Campaign Ribbon, Global War on Terrorism Service Ribbon and GWOT Expeditionary Ribbon. She also bears patches signifying “retired military working dog”, “Amtrak K-9 Police”, and “Do Not Pet”. The latter is due to policy to prevent people from approaching her while she works.
Summer gets plenty of love from veterans recognizing those ribbons. For them, Jones makes an exception.
“I allow them to pose and take photos with her,” he says. “A lot notice her E-6 Marine Staff Sgt. patch. In the military, the dog always has a rank above the handler.”
A Bond Like No Other
To stay on top of their game, Summer and Jones undergo three-day recertifications yearly, conducted by Transportation Security Administration evaluators and a Lackland Air Force trainer in their operational environments i.e. terminals, luggage, vehicles, warehouses, and aboard trains.
“The dog is your best friend, partner, and lifesaver,” reflects Jones reflects on the pair’s emotional acuity. “You are his focus, trainer, provider, leader, and interpreter. Together, you train to hone your skills and bond as a razor-sharp team. It’s both a sobering and satisfying adventure. There’s really nothing like it!”
While she’s all-business all the time while on the job, Summer does have a life outside of work. When the pool is open at home, she thrives on swimming and diving, playing fetch in the backyard, sunbathing on the patio, joining Dad on rides to get coffee, and, of course, stopping at Petco to pick out her toys.
Summer and Michelle, Jones’ wife, have an understood relationship.
“When Michelle and I are sitting together on the couch, Summer becomes jealous and scoots in between us,” Jones explains. “Michelle just accepts it and understands the special bond we have as working partners.”
The AKC National Championships presented by Royal Canin will take place Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15, 2019, in Orlando, Florida. Tune in to AKC.TV or download the AKC.TV app on Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV to catch the live stream.