Meet the Labrador Retrievers Who Safeguard the U.N.
This week, the United Nations begins hosting the General Assembly, which sees world leaders and their envoys flying in from around the globe to congregate for two weeks of debate. From a security point of view, it means that a six block area of Manhattan needs to be vetted for explosives and suspicious materials. The K-9 Unit is a key part of that process.
Ahead of the General Assembly, I was invited to the United Nations to meet the K-9 Unit. After being greeted outside of the gates to the United Nations by Lt. Joseph Leal, I was escorted to a building the handlers affectionately call their "domain." Once inside, I sat down with Sgt. Wilson Barry and senior security officer Brent Hadley and their dogs, Storm and Chloe, to get the story on the Labrador troops that keep the United Nations secure and the diplomacy flowing.
Dogster: I was expecting the dogs working at the United Nations to be German Shepherds.
Wilson Barry: A lot of people say that. But when these dogs are out in public they want them looking a little friendlier and more approachable so they use Labradors. They want to encourage the staff and the public to come and talk to us. Other stations do have German Shepherds so maybe one day we'll position to them also, but right now it's Labradors.
What makes the Labrador suitable to work at the United Nations?
WB: Because they have a very friendly demeanor -- they want a dog so that people won't be afraid to approach us and ask questions, and a Lab makes people want to come up and talk to us if they need help.
How does a dog come to work at the United Nations?
WB: The thing is, we get trained by the New York state police. It's a three-month school and ahead of time, before they even pick the candidates, they go and find the dogs. The dogs come from pretty much anywhere in the United States, from dog pounds and families. Once they select the candidates to go to school, they try and match you to go with the personality of the dog.
Do they get it right most times when matching dogs to people?
WB: Definitely. That's my dog Storm, he's handsome like me! No, some of the dogs you can really match with their handler's personalities, like you'll have a handler who moves slow and the dog moves slow. Some handlers are hyper and the dog's hyper.
How long have you been with Storm?
WB: I went to school in 2004 and we've been together since. He turned 10 recently.
What's Storm's personality like?
WB: Friendly, easygoing. When I first got him he was very hyper but now he's more of a quiet dog.
What sort of training do you go through together?
WB: Bomb detection. That's a three-month school.
Can you talk about what goes on at bomb-detection school?
WB: First, you and the dog don't know anything -- you train together -- so it's kind of a bonding time and about obedience and reading off each other. The way it works is they'll put three items up, and the third item is the box with the explosives in it, and it has a hole in it. So once the dog sniffs every item that you point to, he gets to the box with the hole in it he'll put his nose in there, and you automatically say, "Sit." Once he sits you give him the ball, and eventually they connect the explosive with the ball. Once they know they find the explosive, they know they're gonna get their reward, which is the ball. It's repetitive.
Who learns faster, the dog or the handler?
WB: It's funny, pretty much the dog learns quicker. I think as humans we're so constantly thinking -- we're talking footwork and the way we handle the leash and what the dog's doing -- so we're often over-thinking everything. But it starts to click during the last month when you finish school. It all comes together.
Do most dogs make it through the training school?
WB: No. As a matter of fact we had one dog who made it through school, but once the dog came back to headquarters and was exposed to all the noise -- the garbage trucks, the people -- the dog just shut down. It's like for seeing-eye dogs, a lot of them don't make it. This dog was actually in the seeing-eye school at first.
Who picks the dog's name?
WB: We do, the handlers.
WB: When I was asked to give a name that was the one that came out of my mouth!
What's your dog's name, Brent?
Brent Hadley: Chloe.
What were your first impressions of Chloe?
BH: When they first showed her to me I though she was a male, a boy! My wife really wanted to get a female but I told her I don't know what I'm going to get -- they bring one out and that's it. They have you pick two names, a male and a female name, so I had two names picked out. I told my wife and daughters that if I got a female they could pick the name, to give them an opportunity to be involved with the dog.
What was the male name going to be?
BH: It was Daly, after a famous marine.
What's Chloe's personality like?
BH: She's very playful and she loves kids and other dogs. But she's also like me where she's easygoing and laid-back, just like she is now. I just have to say a couple of things to her, like we're going for a walk or to play outside, and she's ready almost immediately.
So you take the dogs home at night?
BH: Yes, they're with us 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Is it strange for the dogs to literally come to work every day?
WB: No, it's not, it's more strange if they stay home. There's been times where I'll leave the house, and Storm is so used to leaving that it'll be strange for him to stay, because it's built in their heads to go. They like coming to work.
On a day-to-day basis, what are the dogs' responsibilities at the United Nations?
WB: We check vehicles, rooms, packages, pretty much anything that pops up. We're considered one of the busiest canine units in the United States; in a year we handle 30,000 searches for the whole unit. When we come to work, we know we're here to work.
BH: Each handler and dog team averages about 3,000 searches a year. That's a lot. To put things into perspective, on a daily basis what we do is what the N.Y.P.D.'s whole team will do in a week.
WB: We work in a different capacity to other organizations. Right now we have a lot of construction going on [at the United Nations], we have commercials vehicles coming in, so our volume is very high.
Do the dogs have any sort of special diet?
WB: Some of the dogs do -- Storm was on a deer meat and potato diet. Labradors are prone to a lot of allergies; when I first got him he used to get a lot of ear allergies and was prone to scratching.
BH: Yeah, a lot of them have allergies of some sort so they get put on special food.
WB: I changed his food recently. Right now he's on a salmon-based diet.
Storm eats well!
WB: Oh, he's eating better than a lot of humans!
Have the dogs had any encounters with famous world leaders or celebrities?
WB: We have seen some but none actually come up to us and ask to pet the dog. But one of our female handlers just got back from school and she met Jane Goodall.
How was the dog with Jane Goodall?
WB: The dog was fine! I heard the meeting was pretty good and that she kissed him.
What's the most dramatic thing your dogs have been involved in at the United Nations?
WB: The visit from the Queen of England, or when there's the General Assembly. Pretty much those type of things.
Do the dogs seem to notice when it's a big event?
WB: I think to them every day is the same day, pretty much.
BH: They get used to being around a lot of people. If I take her out here and walk her around here through hundreds of people, she sniffs them and she sniffs their bags. She knows to do that. If I'm at home, she'll go to my family and look for attention and to be petted. She doesn't do that at work. I don't let anyone ever pet her at work because then she won't be effective at her job; instead of going up to you and smelling your bag, she'll go up to your hand to be petted. She knows what to do at work.
What's the trickiest part about working with the dogs?
WB: I think it's about trying to keep their attention span going. For instance, in the summertime when the weather's really hot the dogs want to shut down because they're walking around with a fur coat on, especially if our work volume is very high. Let's say a dog checks five vehicles, by the fifth vehicle they might be tired already, but there's still more vehicles to check. You have to keep them into it so you change the pitch of your voice, get a ball and bounce it in front of them to get them going again and start them up. Dogs are like humans, they have their good days and their bad days. There are days when Storm comes to work and he's really into it but other days when he might not be that enthusiastic. But you can't fault them for it.
Do they seem to enjoy being in the United Nations?
WB: Oh, yeah. Storm loves coming to work. If I'm home and I leave the house, he'll sit by the door and wait for me to come home. He's programmed to leaving the house more than staying home.
What happens when the dogs come to the end of their time at the United Nations?
WB: Sometimes the handler will keep them and adopt them at home, or someone else will provide a home for them. Actually, he [Brent] has one.
BH: What happened was, one of our handlers had gotten sick -- he hurt his back really badly -- so they transferred him out of the unit. I adopted the dog for him. His name is Zeus.
How does he get along with Chloe?
BH: Great, they get along really good. It's kinda crazy at times because he was so used to going to work, but now he stays home with my wife and kids. But he's very active. When I come home, if it's been a busy day, Chloe just wants to go up and lay on the couch, but [Zeus] is running around wanting to go outside and play with her. I'll let Chloe sleep for a couple of hours and then in the early evening go outside and play. He was working for three and a half years so he's so used to working, not sitting at home.
How vicious could the dogs get?
WB: Well, I was bit by Storm once! Pretty much, this breed is very friendly, but any dog is capable of going crazy with you.
How did you get bit by Storm?
WB: We were doing a training session. Once he found the explosive, I gave him the ball and we were playing for a while. When we were done playing I let him go back in the office with the ball, and he went in his cage. The thing is, once they're in their cage, that's their domain, and you're not meant to violate it. But I went to try and get the ball. He was growling at me. I should have backed off and let him calm down, but then I stuck my hand in there -- it was more an ego thing and my ego got the best of me -- and he bit me. I wasn't mad at him, though. It was my fault and I should have let him be.
Were you a little nervous around Storm after he bit you?
WB: No. I did scream at him, I'm not going to lie. But our relationship is good. When I explained the situation to my wife she told me I should have left him alone. With a dog, you can yell at them, but they have that unconditional love, and we always have a good relationship. There are days when he'll drive me crazy, just like anybody else's dog in here, but I wouldn't change anything.
Which dog in here drives you crazy the most?
WB: Probably the barkers! We have a couple of dogs that just keep barking, always want to bark.
BH: There are three or four male dogs that don't get along. If they came in contact with each other they would have a fight.
WB: They're not fixed -- our male dogs are not fixed -- so they have that alpha-male territory thing. For instance, Jordan and Hector, if they came in contact with each other, there are going to be problems.
Which is the most lovable dog at the United Nations?
WB: Well, we're biased.
BH: Chloe is like a big lovable baby. She loves other dogs and kids.
How many dogs work at the United Nations?
WB: We have 13 canine teams; that's the dogs and handlers.
Are you sure that's not an unlucky number?
WB: I hope not!
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