As an airport canine handler starting in June, my husband, Cody, was tasked with screening cargo for explosives. His closest colleague was a bomb-detection expert named Barry. Though we didn’t know it at the start, Cody’s partner was about to become a full-time member of our family.
Barry, incidentally, is a K9 service dog. And the journey we’ve taken with him has been life-changing.
Belgian Malinois are top K9 picks for a reason.
K9s are trained dogs that perform specialized roles like police work, military duties, aiding in search-and-rescue operations, and yes, screening cargo at airports. Barry is a ‘detection’ K9, which means he’s trained to detect specific odors and alert his handler. He belongs to a third-party company that partners with locations like airports, warehouses, and stadiums.
The day Cody chose Barry as his partner, he showed me a video of the dog doing backflips in his enclosure. I was awestruck but apprehensive. Barry is a Belgian Malinois, a herding breed known for their intense energy. They’ve also earned the nickname "maligator” because of their tendency to nibble on just about anything.
All this left me wondering: Wouldn't a more relaxed breed, like a lab, be a safer choice? Why turn a Belgian Malinois into a service dog in the first place?
And in fact, Labrador Retrievers do often serve as K9s. Other breeds, like German Shepherds, German Shorthaired Pointers, and even Beagles can fit the role as well, as long as they have the right characteristics.
But there are reasons why Belgian Malinois are often trained as K9s: Trainers look for fast learners who are responsive, loyal, nimble, have a good sniffer, and, in some cases, have a strong bite. Maligators tick all the right boxes.
K9 dogs often speak other languages.
K9s are acquired in all sorts of ways. It’s quite common for them to be sourced from European breeders, where genetics have been honed to a science. Barry hails from the Netherlands and learned obedience commands in Dutch.
To maintain consistency, we still translate for Barry. While I use "sit" and "stay" for our other dog, Rio, I switch to "zit" and "blijf" for Barry. (He did quickly pick up on the phrase "Milk-Bone,” though.)
The training and certification process for K9s is extremely methodical. During the 8–10-week program, each dog-and-handler team is assessed. Barry was consistently at the top of his class. When presented with over 150 boxes, each with distinct scents, he always pinpointed the box containing the trigger scent.
Occasionally, nearby machines, such as forklifts, posed distractions. To desensitize, Cody was instructed to play with Barry in proximity to the machine. This way, when Barry encountered a forklift during a scent search, he would remain focused.
The program for handlers combines classwork and hands-on training with their canine companions. This phase plays a crucial role in fostering a strong bond between the handler and the K9.
K9s truly aren't just pets...but we do bond with them.
Nearly two weeks into the certification course, Barry came to live with us. This allows each handler to build a relationship with their partner outside of the job. It’s very common for K9s to live with their handler, even those on the police force; it strengthens the overall relationship and trust.
Barry’s first day coming home was nerve-wracking. I had reservations about how he'd react to meeting me for the first time. Up until then, I’d only ever encountered a K9 in public, and those experiences made me a little uneasy. After all, seeing a dog wearing a vest that says "do not pet" is pretty intimidating.
I knew I’d need to exercise a great deal of patience and restraint since my instinct is to shower a new dog with pets and affection. And Barry needed some time to familiarize himself with his new surroundings. At first, he would approach me cautiously.
Our K9 is more interested in people than pets.
For about a month, we kept Barry and Rio separate whenever Barry was home, one being in the crate and the other being out. But once Barry had settled into our home and established a stable routine of going to work and returning, we felt it was the right time for him to meet Rio.
To ease the introduction, we opted for family walks, allowing each dog to observe the other from a distance.
When Barry detects a scent at work, he’s rewarded with a toy—and he tends to be very possessive over this toy. While I'd love to see him and Rio play fetch or have a tug-of-war, safety comes first.
Their socializing is strictly supervised. While we let them out in the yard together or snuggle on the couch for a movie, Barry’s interest in our other dog is limited. He’s very human-oriented and bonded to Cody and me, so he still typically seeks pets from us before acknowledging Rio.
Of course, as in most households, our cat, Delilah, is the boss.
We weren’t certain what Barry's reaction would be to meeting Delilah, so Cody and I started by keeping him leashed in the living room, providing a toy or object to redirect his attention whenever he got too interested in Delilah.
We discovered that after a full day at work, a worn-out Barry was more relaxed and less preoccupied when Delilah decided to explore.
Weekends with a K9 aren't exactly relaxing.
Weekends are a challenge for Barry.
Belgian Malinois are a herding breed and require a lot of mental stimulation and physical exercise. Our usual two-mile walk typically exhausts Rio, a mixed breed, but hardly tires Barry.
To keep Barry engaged, my husband came up with the idea of doing drills and hiding trigger scents around the house. Barry is trained to alert Cody by sitting in front of a designated area. These drills not only keep Barry’s skills sharp but also provide us with a little relief from Barry’s restless behaviors.
What the future holds for our working K9
A K9's life isn't just about work; they also crave playtime and affection. A career as a handler comes with the responsibility of providing a balance of work and play, as well as tending to veterinary needs.
On average, K9s are retired from their jobs at 6–8 years old. Generally, handlers adopt their canine partners, which is exactly what we plan to do with Barry. But there are also rescues for retired working K9s, or even those who’ve failed certification. (FYI, it’s also possible to adopt other types of service dogs.) Of course, the criteria for adopting these dogs can be more difficult than for a typical rescue dog.
Up until retirement, Barry is owned by the company that he’s employed with, so he’s not enrolled in a pet insurance policy. After all, he’s not considered a pet! But once Barry is officially ours, we intend to enroll him in a dog insurance plan. Pet insurance may provide financial reimbursement for veterinary costs just as Barry enters his senior years, when he’s most likely to need care.
It’s hard to believe that Barry won’t be a working dog forever. (He probably wouldn’t believe it, either.) But to us, Barry’s not just a working K9—he's a part of the family. And he’s worth all of the work.