UAA veteran: Tales from the dog squad

November 4, 2016

Michael Sabato, A.A. ’15 (here, with bomb-sniffing dog Rex), transitioned his experience on the U.S. Marine Corps’ canine unit into a career guarding Florida’s ecosystem. (Photo courtesy Michael Sabato)

Michael Sabato’s adaptable outlook has taken him many places, from two tours of Afghanistan with the Marine Corps’ canine unit to a prominent role in Florida snail destruction (yes, you read that correctly). His military experience and degree from UAA have only opened more doors. And, in a way, it all started with a severely sprained ankle before boot camp…

Dog squad

Michael originally intended to leave for the Marines in June 2001—fresh off graduation from Bartlett High School—but an ankle injury shifted his conscription date by four months. A lot changed by the time he started boot camp on Oct. 28. He says the events of 9/11 rightfully concerned his family, but only made him more committed to serving his country.

Leaving in October provided the first of many unexpected redirects. After boot camp, he attended Marine Corps Military Police Academy, where he discovered the top 10 percent of his class could compete for the MP’s canine unit. After achieving high marks and passing his interview, Michael landed one of six spots on the dog squad.

During his four years in the Marines, Michael trained with German shepherds on bases in Okinawa and San Diego, and while deployed at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.

“Dogs will find whatever you train them to find,” he said of the importance of honing each dog’s skills. “That was our whole life—training, training, training.” He explained the difference between humans and dogs with an all-American analogy—a human walking into McDonald’s will smell a Big Mac; a dog will smell the cheese, the tomato, even the seeds on the bun.

Michael and Sonny, one of many explosives-sniffing dogs he worked alongside in the Marine Corps (Photo courtesy of Michael Sabato).

Michael and Sonny, one of many explosives-sniffing dogs he worked alongside in the Marine Corps. (Photo courtesy of Michael Sabato)

But of course, instead of burger fixings, Michael’s unit deconstructed bomb recipes. Explosives use a finite list of identified components, each with its own scent. If a dog can identify tiny traces of these individual odors, it can recognize the massive quantities used to make an explosive.

If the dog’s not having fun, the dog’s not going to work, so a major part of the role was just keeping things light with his empathetic canine colleagues. Essentially, transform a sobering high-stakes task into a game.

“They’re called the dog team for a reason,” Michael explained of the importance of human positivity. “Everything runs down-leash. However you’re feeling, that dog feels your emotions.”

After an honorable discharge as an E-4 corporal in 2005, Michael decided to head home. But it wouldn’t be his last brush with man’s best friends.

Coast to coast          

Back in Anchorage, Michael found a career in media sales and decided, thanks to the GI Bill, it was time to earn a college degree.

“It wasn’t about necessarily needing a degree; it was about wanting to challenge myself,” he said of the decision to enroll. He worked full time at KTBY while studying on the side. And when medical issues in the family prompted him to step back from school, he didn’t give up. He just simply took a hiatus.

Looking to prioritize finances for his family, Michael did two additional tours at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as a canine unit contractor. But he was ready to leave Afghanistan, prompting a super-specific job search: find a canine job in the U.S. that wasn’t law enforcement. “That window is miniscule,” he explained. Fittingly, the job he found with Florida Department of Agriculture was equally specific.

Attack of the snails

“Florida was whole different ball of wax,” Michael said of the move to Miami. Instead of German shepherds hunting explosive chemical compounds, these dogs—all rescue labs—sniffed out plant materials at FedEx and UPS facilities. If any package triggered the dogs, inspectors would slice it open to search inside.

Why? Many people unknowingly ship pests and pathogens, which can devastate Florida’s ecosystems. Like giant snails.

Michael works with Jammer, a plant-detecting rescue lab, on the delivery belts in Florida (Photo courtesy of Michael Sabato).

Michael works with Jammer, a plant-detecting rescue lab, on the delivery belts in Florida. (Photo courtesy of Michael Sabato)

“If you Google giant African land snail, you will find these huge, disgusting snails,” Michael explained of Florida’s evocatively named enemy. With no natural predators and 500 native plants on the menu, these snails wreak havoc. Oh, and they reproduce asexually with a short gestation period. And they carry meningitis. And they’ll try to tear down your home.

“They’ll eat the stucco right off the side of your house to make their shells stronger,” Michael explained. “They’re really nasty little guys. They look harmless … but the ecology of it all is pretty devastating.”

These six-inch snails also cause concern in Cuba, Australia and, according to National Geographic News, they’ve “overrun Brazil.” Most snails are unintentionally shipped to Florida, though some people keep them as pets or for use in religious practices.

For three years, Michael led a six-team canine unit staving off snails and other invasive pests in the Sunshine State. But he hadn’t forgotten his UAA degree. He earned his final three credits in Miami. UAA sent his degree in the mail, class of 2015.

Getting a degree “was just something I wanted to do for myself, and something I’m still doing,” Michael said (he’s now pursuing a four-year degree—and possibly grad school—in international communication).

He credits his military experience with starting him on this unforeseen path. Though canine camaraderie has defined Michael’s career, he never would have considered dog handling if it weren’t for the military. “I don’t think it would have ever dawned on my mind,” he laughed.

“[The Marine Corps] has been such a solid foundation and such a solid stepping-stone from the very get-go. I wouldn’t give any of it back for the world.”

That relaxed approach exemplifies his day-at-a-time outlook pretty well. “You try and plan your life, and the next thing you know you’re so far from where you started planning, and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he noted. “I try and keep that in mind.”

The journey continues. With a military background and a college degree, his path is full of options. “We’ll see what the next opportunity is and where it takes me,” he added. “I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement

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