Laurel resident Krys Rackley says she knows firsthand that dogs are much more than man's best friend. For decades, the third-generation K9 trainer has seen dogs serving people with disabilities as well as military and law enforcement officers.
After becoming a K9 handler at age 16, Rackley founded her own government-contracted company, now known as AmericanK9, in 2012.
Rackley, 31, continues to train service dogs to detect bed bugs, narcotics and explosives; help with seizure and diabetic alerts; sniff out peanut allergies; and other services. On Oct. 1, Rackley converted her online business to its own retail store, the AmericanK9 Dog Shop, on Main Street.
Unlike big-box pet stores, Rackley said her shop caters to family and working dogs, selling items such as imported, holistic, top-of-the-line premium dog food, a variety of all-natural medications, dog toys and treats, collars and leashes. Shoppers will also find gear for working dogs on the shelves, including training and ballistic vests and detection training kits.
"That's our bread and butter," Rackley said of the working dogs. "We are a part of the K9 unit, so we sell police dogs to the military, FEMA and police officers, protection dogs to celebrities and have an in-house K9 unit."
Rackley said she breeds puppies at her home once or twice a year to meet the breeds and training requested by the agencies. She said some dogs come from kennels across Europe, including the Netherlands, Romania, France, Germany and Belgium.
All puppies bred at Rackley's home begin training the moment they're born, she said.
"Each puppy has about 80 hours of training before they're 8 weeks old," Rackley said. "The dog is born with no hearing and no eyesight [and] they rely on their mother for protection. They're taught the odor of the mother from birth. You find the odor and you're rewarded with your mother's milk."
The training process is completed within their first year. As the process continues, Rackley said puppies are selected for more advanced training based on their work ability, testing and training skills. Other puppies may not possess the specific skills necessary for this particular line of work, she said, and will be sold to families as pets.
Shawn Crawford, K9 team leader with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive, says the majority of dogs purchased by the ATF's National Canine Division are those unfit to serve people with disabilities such as vision impairment or blindness.
"There's nothing wrong with [the dogs], but they're just distracted by cats or rabbits or whatever normal dog behaviors," said Crawford, who is a team leader at the ATF location in Front Royal, Va. "They can't have that with an unsighted person. A dog sees a rabbit, gets excited and the unsighted person has no idea what's going on."
The ATF division uses Labrador retrievers in their training program, he said, and begins when the dogs are 14 to 16 months old. In the explosive-training program, dogs are pre-trained for six weeks and then paired with an officer for an additional 10 weeks, comprised of classroom work, explosive safety and veterinary care. The course concludes with simulated real-world scenarios, known as mock situations, which the officer and canine may encounter.
"We also train accelerant dogs" in fire training, Crawford said. "We pre-train the dogs for six weeks and then the handler and the dog are paired up for another six weeks. That's basically going out to fire scenes and get them used to working all types of situations."
Good-quality working dogs are of high demand, making Rackley's efforts a great asset to Laurel and the East Coast, Crawford said.
"With the heightened threat around the United States, dogs are the first line of defense out there. That's why they're so high in demand," he said. "I think it is fantastic we've got someone out there selling high-protein, good food outside the pet industry. Someone's taking the time to try and help and I have adamant admiration that they're doing that."
Inside the Laurel Police Department, Sgt. Jesse Conyngham said the K9 unit plans to reach out to AmericanK9 to provide food for their five K9 teams. As the unit's supervisor, Conyngham said each team has duel-purpose dogs that are trained in both narcotic detection and patrol work.
Canines make patrols safer, he said, when they help with scent tracking, article searches, apprehensions and building searches.
"Whereas you or I would be using our eyes to locate something, a dog is using its nose and they're statistically a lot more accurate in location senses," Conyngham said. "There are a lot of avenues for dogs and people just realize that their noses provide a tool that humans can't build a machine for or mimic."
Similar to any department purchase, Conyngham said officers always test dogs before buying them. The Police Department has purchased dogs and equipment from locations as far away as South Carolina as well as Pennsylvania and Virginia. The type of breed may include German shepherds, Belgian Malinois and Dutch shepherds.
"If somebody has a reputation for importing or breeding or acquiring good dogs, they're usually pretty successful in that avenue," he said. "In my eyes, it's awesome to have a resource that's in Laurel and a lot closer."
With her store up and running, Rackley said she's hoping to finalize pending permits for a 12,000-sqaure-foot kennel and training facility in Laurel. The facility would be open to the public to watch canine training from puppyhood to certified adult K9s, with three 2,000-square-foot rooms.
"People love dogs [and] they love watching training," Rackley said. "To be able to connect people and dogs on a professional level that has not been done before, we are so excited to involve our community in the training of how the man's best friend is also a hero on so many levels."