Think Lassie is cool? Check out what Rhett does ...

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kristina Newton
  • 1st SOW Public Affairs
He has an average build, but his eyes are a deep chocolate brown and his hair is long and wavy. When he sidles up to people, they can't resist his plaintive looks; they just have to pet him. 

His name is Rhett and he is a nine-year-old Border collie working with the birdstrikes control program. 

Rhett and his handler, Rebecca Rushing, 1st Special Operations Wing Safety Office, a wildlife biologist and the wildlife manager for Hurlburt Field, patrol the airfield looking for wildlife that may pose a threat to the aircraft. 

Ms. Rushing explained she and Rhett work for the company Birdstrike Control Program, but the non-profit side of the business is a Border collie rescue organization. 

"The rescue program takes in dogs that are often given up very shortly after being taken home as a pet because they tend to get very hyper," Ms. Rushing said. "Border collies are herding dogs with an intense herding instinct, and they're bred to work all day. If they're not given that outlet they can become very obsessive-compulsive with negative behaviors. The dogs that can't be placed in a home normally become the best service dogs because they need to work." 

Once a dog is identified as a possible candidate, it's put through a year-and-a-half training process, where it receives obedience training and learns basic sheep herding commands. 

Then they graduate to birds, ducks and geese, Ms. Rushing said. 

"At some point, they're placed with a wildlife team to work with an experienced dog to acclimate to airfields and aircraft noise," Ms. Rushing said. "They get to a point where they are habituated to ignore the aircraft." 

Rhett is trained on two types of commands - one given verbally by the handler and one given with a shepherd's whistle. 

"If Rhett is out in the field and can't hear me, I can use a shepherd's whistle for a distance of up to a mile. I can keep him under control when he is away from me," Ms. Rushing said. 

Ms. Rushing said that Rhett is very well experienced. He's worked on the Birdstrike Control Program at Dover Air Force Base, Del., and he worked with a program the company runs for the Israeli air force. Rhett has been working with the program for about seven years and at Hurlburt for three. 

"The point of the program is to combine the expertise of a wildlife biologist with the most effective tool to manage wildlife on the airfield," Ms. Rushing said. "The dogs are perfect for this type of job, they work in all conditions and they don't just work on birds; they work on mammals of all kinds as well." 

Not only does the program nearly eliminate the need for lethal control measures and pyrotechnics, it's also very efficient. 

"Rhett can clear a flock of birds in five minutes with the proper directions, when the same flock would take me 45 minutes with pyrotechnics," she said. 

But the project isn't just about temporarily clearing hazardous wildlife from the runway; the program also has a long term goal. 

"We want to deal with the airfield environment as a whole in terms of making sure it's not only a safe environment for aircraft, but also encourages wildlife to live elsewhere," Ms. Rushing said. "Through habitat management we can reduce the attractiveness of the airfield to the wildlife. 

"Bringing Rhett to the airfield is like introducing a predator into the area," she said. "His goal is to herd it and move it. 

"He doesn't really have a kill instinct, it is bred out of him, but the animal he's chasing doesn't know that. The beauty of the program is that he looks like a predator, and the animals can't afford to stay here." 

Ms. Rushing went on to say if the animal can be prevented from feeding and breeding on the airfield, the long term effect of keeping animals off the airfield can be accomplished.
The Birdstrike Control Program has a huge affect on the airfield and operations here. 

Controlling the wildlife on and around the airfield is extremely important because a birdstrike can cause a catastrophic plane crash. 

Another goal is to prevent damage to the airplane. Repair costs can be great, not just monetarily, but through lost training time. It has a ripple affect of costs that can't be put on paper. 

Maj. Dan Murray, 1st SOW chief of flight safety, is very supportive of the Birdstrike Control Program. 

"This program has saved us literally hundreds of thousands of dollars from birdstrikes. Ms. Rushing and Rhett have an incredible work ethic. They're consistent and persistent," he said. 

Ms. Rushing and Rhett have done such a good job that they're now expanding their contract to handle other areas of the airfield. 

"The most recent addition to their contract is taking care of the pigeon problem which has become a huge concern in the hangars for maintenance and corrosion, and the health concerns associated with large bird populations," Maj. Murray said. 

Despite the praise she's received from numerous supervisors and co-workers, Ms. Rushing doesn't take all the credit. She said she couldn't have had such a successful program if all the agencies she coordinates with weren't so cooperative. 

"This is really a team effort; everyone has worked well together," she said. "In my work with base operations, the tower, airfield management, civil engineering and safety, there haven't been any hiccups between those organizations. 

"We get things done efficiently and effectively. That is a big part of what makes this program successful."