Unlike so many reality TV programs that focus on animals, National Geographic’s new show Alpha Dogs is not concerned with being cute. Its subjects are not roly-poly or sweet. It’s about a group of dog handlers who look like supporting characters from Sons of Anarchy and hold high level security clearances: they train dogs for all branches of the military, multiple police departments, and even Special Forces divisions. The men and women of Vohne Liche Kennels, “the industry leader in bomb-sniffing dogs,” are about as cute as Bigfoot in a bar fight.
VLK founder Kenny Licklider and his team train dogs to find bombs, sniff out drugs, and hunt human targets; his son K.C. often plays their practice human target. Alpha Dogs’ premiere starts with a training session for dogs assigned to a Special Forces K9 unit. As they learn to function under fire, their Special Forces handlers are instructed in keeping their quadruped partners calm (unlike the dogs, the handlers’ faces are blurred out). If the handler fails to follow the training, a frightened dog may turn and bite, out of fear, sometimes creating “situations” in the field. This is driven home by trainer Danny Parker as he corrects a trainee who puts herself and her dog in danger.
During such moments, Alpha Dogs looks like a smart reality show, informative and compelling. Like the animal experts on The Dog Whisperer and My Cat from Hell, Kenny and his staff train their clients on the psychology of dogs, how to handle dogs, why they bite under stress, and how to prevent such accidents. The difference here is that neither Cesar Millan nor Jackson Galaxy is working with automatic rifle fire erupting around him.
Given the risks of being a Tactical Explosive Detector Dog (T.E.D.D.), seeking out terrorists under trap doors, or taking down aggressive suspects, you might guess the training would be like a canine boot camp. But more often, VLK trainers use a kind of dog psychology in their teaching, a process gentler than their human counterparts underwent in their own boot camps. Trainers Luther McDonald and Bobby Roettger treat dogs like dogs, as opposed to mere tools or weapons. These big tough biker guys (each episode opens by showing them riding in on their choppers) use praise and positive reinforcement to teach the dogs their “fun work.”
It’s an apt phrase: when the VLK staff simulates field operations, the audience sees how challenging both the training and the missions to follow can be. German Shepherds repel down the sides of buildings and roll through houses on the hunt for terrorists. Cocker Spaniels are trained to sniff out decaying human remains using actual remains. Hounds are trained to locate bombs by exposure to the actual chemicals used in explosives.
Sometimes the show loses track of its own mission: the VLK trainers spend a bit of extracurricular time engaged in bonding exercises like bare-handed snapping turtle hunting, accompanied by silly reality-show-music. In the third episode’s COPS-style ride-along, we see more detail regarding their work with the dogs. That work can be surprising, too, when it comes to choosing dogs for specific assignments: the hardest jobs don’t all go to German Shepherds and Rottweilers, or when dogs who don’t graduate from the program find adoptive homes. These segments help to temper the fast-paced guns-a-blazing training sessions.
Alpha Dogs reveals a very serious job done by very serious people, but also takes time to show their dedication to the profession and their sense of patriotic duty. VLK’s trainers are burly and often profane (there are enough “bleeps” in the show’s soundtrack to form a techno song), but there is no question that they love the highly trained special mission force on four legs they help to create. As Kenny says, “I love what I do, you know? I play with dogs for a living.” If Alpha Dogs can shed the few clichés, it could become a DOG COPS.