Dita, a three-year-old Belgian Malinois, plays an explosives detection dog on CBS specialized forces drama “SEAL Team,” performing stunts from helicopter rides to climbing ladders. Her handler, Justin Melnick, originally trained her to be a part of search and rescue during his work with a real life small town police force in Indiana but later switched her to narcotics detection. “Everything we do on the show is for real, and it’s all training for her,” Melnick says.
What first inspired you to go down this path of armed forces and law enforcement?
I spent about six years working all over the world as a combat photographer, and it culminated in Afghanistan — I spent three months embedded with the troops in Afghanistan, traveled the entire country by ground [and] by air, came back and I wanted to join the military. What I saw over there motivated me to want to be apart of the solution. When I came back I started a process called 18 X-ray, which is a direct special forces program. And I had to make a life call. I realized I didn’t have certain qualities that were necessary to work in a special operations unit and that I wasn’t cut out for that job. It was really hard at 29 years old to realize what you want to do, you can’t do. So I didn’t really know what I was going to do [but] ended up getting randomly connected and moving to Indiana and working for a small police force there. I spent seven years revamping their program, helping them with their active shooting training — using the training from bigger metropolitan police departments and military units based off of counter-terrorism measures to combat the situation if there was to be an active shooter. Our schools have been very lucky, and our chief of police has been at the forefront of body cameras and school resource officers, so we have a police officer in the school, and we managed to stop a few things before they actually happened due to proactive policing. So my main focus there has been the active shooter and basically integrating SWAT tactics into patrol.
When did dog training come into it?
My roommate had gotten Dita — he’s a K9 officer for a larger city department — and he ended up not being able to keep her. Our narcotics K9 at the time retired because he had been in service for eight or nine years, and we work on a very limited budget in the small town — we have five full time officers and 24 reserve, part time officers. So I took Dita and started training her.
How drastically have things changed now that you’re not on active duty?
We still have relationships with all of the police departments around the United States, but especially LA — there’s great facilities out here. Everyone has opened their doors to us. Being able to stay in that world through the show is huge.
How does training Dita for the show differ from what you would do in the field?
This isn’t a show where they want her to do tricks like sitting up and begging or carrying [something]. This is a show that’s real and they want a real working dog. She plays an explosives detection dog, so all we do is replace the explosives odors with narcotics odors, because that’s what she’s trained in. So when you see her searching and she finds an explosive on the show, she’s finding her narcotics odors. We try and stay current on everything just because if you had a kid who’s a math wiz, just because he’s good at it doesn’t mean you stop challenging him.
What ability has Dita shown off that most surprised either the people on the set or the audience?
Climbing the ladder literally took the cake on that one. People were blown away.
How did you get her to do that?
I understand motivation, and these dogs are motivated by the bite suits and by apprehending their suspects. They have a high drive. So that scene in episode 14 where she climbs the ladder, that was one take [and] all I had to do was make her aware that her suspect was inside and that she had to get through the window. She went right up that ladder because it was the path of least resistance for her.
Has there been anything the show wanted Dita to do that you thought would be a problem for her?
There was one thing, and I said no, and they were super cool about it. They wanted someone to give her a bite of beef jerky, but she’s not allowed any human food.
What’s the most important aspect of working with Dita?
I wish I could take credit for everything she does. I’ve never had a dog in my life, but I work well with Dita. Dog trainers have this saying that “Your emotion runs up and down the leash,” so she can feel what you’re thinking just conducted through the leash. It’s just a bond. I’ve never had anything in my life like it.
How do you feel the platform of the show has affected the real life police work you do?
I’ve been working on a charity for two years called End of Watch to be able to drop off an immediate check for families of fallen law enforcement who died in the line of duty. It’s a lot harder to set up a charity than one might thing, but using this platform from the show to promote that charity down the line is 100% a blessing from God. I love making the show and being in nature and working with every single person — I’ve never met a more driven and capable group of human beings on every level; there’s no “no,” there’s just “Let’s figure it out” — but I wouldn’t do it unless there was a reason. We’re here for a very limited time, and if we can do good in the world and leave it better than we found it, I’m a big believer in that.
You also stepped in front of the camera, was that something that took convincing? How has that felt?
It’s been such an exciting adventure. I’ve had the best acting teachers in the entire universe in my eyes. Watching Toni Trucks and Neil Brown Jr, AJ [Buckley], Max [Thieriot] and David [Boreanaz] go back and forth in scenes, every week I’ll focus on something else that they do, whether it’s improv or facial expressions or body language or figuring out where the camera’s going to be so they can get their shots in one take. These guys are the best at what they do. And not speaking for the first four episodes gave me two months of just school to learn. And we’ve had amazing directors who have pulled me aside and coached me.
Do you feel personally changed by the experience with Dita on the show?
After the last nine months of my life I cannot imagine doing anything else ever again. I’m head over heels in love with absolutely all of it, from the creative process of production to post. It’s so much fun. You get to run around and play dress up every day. Yeah, the cost in the real world is very great, but if we can bring the story of what these guys go through at home and at work — it’s such a specialized unit that most people don’t really understand it. To most people Navy SEALs don’t cry, they don’t bleed, but they’re human, and they pay the greatest sacrifice. It’s been 17 years. It’s been a long war.
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