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News | May 12, 2021

Who let the dogs out? DIA retires two K-9s

By Ally Rogers, DIA Public Affairs

It’s said that every chapter must come to an end, so that a new chapter may begin. If there’s any team in DIA that knows this best, it’s the DIA Police K-9 unit.

In 2012, the DIA Police secured authorities and funds for four full-time K-9s and their handlers. Capt. William McEnaney started the team, as an experienced handler in the military and in his post-military career. In his search for canines to fill his ranks, he found Sid, Norma Jean, Rex and Dolly.

Until Sid retired in 2019, the four had been the designated full-time DIA K-9s along with their respective handlers. Next month, Norma Jean and Rex will walk the halls of DIA for the last time as they retire this summer.

“Our Agency has been very good about providing all the means to prolong their lives,” said DIA Police Sgt. Josh DePasquale, handler of Rex. “Typically, a canine retires around 10-11 years old, unless there’s an injury or illness that ends their career sooner.”

Norma Jean and Rex are currently 10 years old. While the industry standard suggests they could have at least one year remaining in their careers, both dogs have sustained knee injuries — one of which required surgery — so it’s time to hang up their K-9 harnesses.

“Dogs only have one crucial ligament in their knees. So when it’s torn, it’s equivalent to a human tearing their ACL,” said DePasquale. “After it is repaired, (the dogs) recover but aren’t really ever the same. Yes, they perform their job — they’re efficient and effective. But you have to wonder if they’re happy and if it’s the right thing for their quality of life.”

Dolly is the oldest of the group. This year, she will be 11 years old. It’s anticipated that she will retire later this year or in early 2022. She’s the healthiest, in that she has not sustained any career-ending injuries. Like many canines, she’s had her bouts of eye, ear and stomach infections. But overall, she’s healthy.

When Sid retired in 2019, the Agency was unable to backfill his vacancy.

“At the time, there wasn’t a contract with a K-9 vendor available to get a new dog,” said DePasquale. “But a year later, DIA awarded a contract and we were able to secure our team four new dogs.”

The K-9 team also hired a new handler: Cpl. Johnathan Heisler, who joined the DIA Police in 2017. Prior to his selection to the team, he served as an operations enforcement officer.

Between two visits to the North Carolina kennel that won the contract, DePasquale identified three of the four future DIA dogs. The first was 15-month-old Julio, followed by 17-month-old Siba and 21-month-old Tango. The fourth will not be considered until Dolly is closer to retirement.

“When we look for new dogs, there’s certain criteria that goes into selecting them,” said DePasquale.

He explained that canines must have a certain appearance, to visually serve as a deterrence. They must also have a calm demeanor when they are not in “hunt mode” or working on a task. Additionally, they must listen well and be friendly enough to be around the DIA workforce.

After the canines are selected, they undergo single purpose explosive detection training. They train every day for approximately three months. Then, they have additional training to pair them with their handler. When they are finally operational and integrated into DIA, they continue to train at least three times per week with law enforcement partners or other federal agencies.

When the K-9s are not on the clock with their handler, they are family dogs for their assigned DIA Police handler. When Norma Jean, Rex and, eventually, Dolly retire, they will spend their days lounging on plush beds and comfy couches, chasing squirrels and balls, and protecting their families like any other household pet.

What will set them apart are the awards and honors hanging on their household walls that were earned in their dedicated 10 years of service to the Agency and the Nation:

  • Rex: 2018 Andrews Air Force Base Police Week K-9 competition: First place, explosive detection competition.
  • Dolly: 2017 Andrews Air Force Base Police Week K-9 competition: Second place, Iron Dog competition.
  • Norma Jean: 10 years of dedicated service, est. 2022.
    • As a note, Norma Jean is assigned to the unit lead, McEnaney, who prioritized his officers' involvement in competitions rather than taking part himself. He provided coverage while the team participated; thus Norma did not have the opportunity to compete.

Julio’s first day was Dec. 28, 2020. Siba and Tango will begin this summer after they are certified through the International Police Work Dog Association.