He got more than 675,000 likes in 2016 on Instagram. He’s been on CBS News and he’s got hundreds of thousands of video views. In two years, he’s racked up more than 4,117 hours monitoring wildlife control on the runway at the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan. It’s a job that’s made Piper, an 8-year-old border collie, a social media sensation and possibly more famous than Rin Tin Tin.
While Piper doesn’t seem to care much for statistics (he’s chased more than 4,400 birds and other critters from the runway), his handler, Brian Edwards, says his herding instinct has made him a natural for the job. “I’d read about the use of dogs on runways,” he recalls. “Fort Meyers has been doing it since the late 90s. So when I got Piper it was like, what the heck, let’s give it a shot.”
The difference between Cherry Capital Airport and Fort Meyers is that at Fort Meyers the dog is there 365 days a year, 24/7. The dog is owned by the airport, and all the supervisors have been trained to work with the dog. But to buy a dog trained in runway patrol can cost up to $15,000 plus the costs to operate and keep the dog on site each year. Being a smaller airport, Cherry Capital doesn’t have that kind of money in the budget. “It was really about me presenting it in a way that wouldn’t cost the airport anything,” Brian says. “It’s not putting us out of house and home, and I get to work with my best friend everyday.” Brian adopted Piper a few years ago. At the time, he was doing a lot of Tough Mudder type races, so he included Piper as his training partner with that. From there, he decided to do more serious training with Piper to see where it might lead. “It took about a year and a half before I got to the point where I was comfortable presenting the idea to my boss,” he says.
Brian and Piper taking a break from runway duty.
It’s not like there’s a handbook for becoming an airport K-9, so Brian had to improvise his own training plan with Piper. He knew he needed a safety zone for Piper to return to if a situation wasn’t safe or if Brian had to call him off a chase, so he got Piper used to coming back to the truck. The next step was to get him comfortable being around runways, aircraft and lots of very loud noises. “The ball is Piper’s greatest reward, so we were just playing with the ChuckIt out by the runways and that helped him get used to the airport," Brian says. "On the flip side, when we would go to do some chasing at first, he knew the ball was in the truck and wouldn’t chase. So once he got comfortable with the airport environment we stopped using toys.” While it took some time, Piper proved himself as highly adaptable in the field and he was officially brought on in 2014 (as a volunteer) to help control the wildlife on the runway.
The most critical skill that Piper had to learn was terminating a chase. “Wildlife is unpredictable,” Brian says. “You can’t just say you’re gonna chase it in one direction – it’ll change direction. So I have to be able to terminate the chase and bring him back.”
Having genes of the smartest breed of dog certainly doesn’t hurt. When Piper’s out chasing a bird, if it flies up in the air Piper knows to terminate the chase himself. It’s the ground animals that push his herding instinct to the edge. “If we’re chasing a fox that darts across the runway, I have to be able to call him off, so me terminating him has to be greater than his drive to go after the fox,” says Brian. To keep this skill fresh, Brian uses anything and everything as a training opportunity. If they see a squirrel, he’ll let Piper set chase for 10-15 feet and then call him off.
One of the ways Brian helps to keep Piper self-rewarding is working on keeping rodents out of the field. He’ll let Piper dig and go after fresh rodent holes to help put a dent in the rodent population. “He can dig like you’ve never seen before, but usually he can’t dig fast enough to get them.”
But the biggest reward is that Cherry Capital Airport has seen a decline in the bird populations near the airport. Even though Piper is only working when Brian is, in a way that’s helped them. “It’s not like the birds know if he’s here or not. When he's outside, his presence is discouraging, particularly in the winter with our snowy owls.” The owls fly extremely low to the ground, which keeps Piper on their tails instead of terminating the chase. “There’s times where we’re chasing an owl four times a day, but eventually they get sick of the harassment and leave. They may sit on the fence outside, but that’s still a win for us.”
As more people heard about Piper locally, Brian put up a website and Facebook page to answer questions about his work. Since then, people from all over have come for a visit to watch Piper work. For Brian, a shot in the dark has turned into his greatest joy. “I had no idea it was gonna become this,” he says. “I love this guy, so I don’t want to do anything without him – we do everything together – to me that’s what it’s all about.”
Check out Piper’s website for more information (or to set up a time to meet him in person) and to find all of his social media accounts.