Hill Air Force Base’s long-time drug dog retires with honors

Feb 18, 2024, 6:51 PM

Staff Sgt. Daniel Duarte, 75th Security Forces Squadron, awards military working dog Kay with a ham...

Staff Sgt. Daniel Duarte, 75th Security Forces Squadron, awards military working dog Kay with a hamburger during his retirement ceremony on Feb. 2. (Cynthia Griggs, U.S. Air Force)

(Cynthia Griggs, U.S. Air Force)

OGDEN — For eight years, regulars at Hill Air Force Base could expect to see Kay sniffing around their trucks and cars at the gate, or rummaging through the dorm rooms of young airmen, searching for narcotics.

“As far drug detection capability, Kay was it,” Tech. Sgt. John Cooper, Hill’s kennel master, said. “It’s a pretty big mission.”

Then, in November 2023, the military working dog couldn’t perform the obedience course or jump into a vehicle without being in obvious pain, and ran with a hunched back to compensate for the pain. When he was brought to the vet, they found Kay had a spinal nerve issue. “We ended up having home care for Kay,” Cooper said, “He was cycling through different handlers’ houses.” Though the German shepherd’s retirement was imminent, they hadn’t decided who would adopt him.

Like many working dogs, Kay was purchased from Germany and shipped, along with hundreds of other puppies, to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas — the mecca of canine training for all branches of the military. Those that passed training could be sent all over the world, working in different military details. After completing his training, Kay spent his entire career at Hill.

A celebration of years of service

In February, the base celebrated the military dog’s eight years of service with a special ceremony, giving him a canine version of the Air and Space Force Commendation Medal, a cheeseburger and a new toy.

“I’ll be honest, it’s more just entertaining for the people to see,” Cooper said. “A lot of people don’t know a lot about what goes on with the working dogs. Some people don’t even know they even exist here at Hill.”

When a working dog retires, which is a rare event at the small Hill kennel, his handler will typically adopt him. Kay’s handler tragically passed away from cancer last year, and Kay hasn’t had a designated handler since. Kay’s trainer, the last person to work him, already had three dogs at home.

Kay was undergoing rounds of steroid injections in his back and being watched by different families as he began the process of unlearning his patrol training to attack on command. “He transferred over really fast,” Cooper said. “As far as not making him want to bite a person, that took maybe a week of training.” Cooper said, now, any sort of aggression would have to be intentionally forced by the handler.

After cycling through houses for three months, Kay was staying at Cooper’s house for a couple of days when Cooper’s wife Marlayna fell in love. Cooper had no intention of keeping the dog, but Kay quickly became a permanent fixture of his household.

Kay still loves to work, and Cooper says he’s extremely energetic for a shepherd his age. The new fitness regimen is turning into a hobby for both Marlayna and Kay, keeping them both as active as possible, hiking and walking.

“He follows her around the house everywhere,” Cooper said. “He’s like her shadow now.”

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Hill Air Force Base’s long-time drug dog retires with honors