If you’ve traveled out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or picked someone up there, you’re likely to have seen members of the Los Angeles Airport Police Division’s Canine Unit (K-9), known for having a strong physical presence and considered a vital component when it comes to detecting explosives.

The canine unit is dedicated to enhancing the law enforcement services of the Airport Police through high visibility patrols, physical deterrence, explosives detection, and public service to the aviation community, said Sgt. Belinda Nettles, the Airport Police public information officer.

I had the opportunity to go on a “ride-along” with K-9 officer Robert Corchado and his canine, Malo — a six-year-old Belgian Malinois — for a firsthand look at how the unit operates at LAX and how these officers and their canines contribute to the safety of passengers and the surrounding community.

Corchado and Malo are a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) canine team trained in the detection of various explosives. Malo has been trained extensively to find explosives in aircraft, baggage, buildings, cargo and vehicles, the officer said.

The K-9 unit began at LAX in 2001, just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Corchado has been a police officer for 15 years, and eight of those have been spent with the K-9 unit. He and Malo have been partners since the canine was 18 months old.

“I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Being able to do something this critical to the safety of the public is one of the reasons I’m a police officer,” Corchado said.

The son of immigrants, he said he took advantage of the assistance offered by his schoolteachers, and is still in contact with his former high school teacher who became his mentor.

“Kids should appreciate and respect their teachers and look to them for guidance,” said Corchado.

The officer, who has been invited to speak at a number of local schools for Career Day, talks to the students about the importance of staying in school and the job he, Malo and the K-9 unit perform.

The training process for a K-9 officer and dog takes approximately three to four months, sometimes longer, depending on the training being done. The officer and dog are paired as partners based on the personality of both, and whether they’re passive or aggressive, Corchado explains.

During his interview for the canine unit, Corchado said he was asked what his interests and hobbies were. He said he enjoys rock climbing and mixed martial arts, and from his answers, he said he was paired with the appropriate dog.

His first canine partner was Rody, who was later paired with Officer Efren Orlanes. Rody was scheduled to retire the week of Sept. 17.

Malo also lives with Corchado and his family, which the officer notes has forged a very close and personal bond. While the K-9 unit might seem like taking a pet to work, Corchado said that in this case, the pet is working as hard as the officer to make sure he detects anything suspicious wherever he’s told to search.

At times, another K-9 officer may walk through a terminal with the officer and his canine as a “spotter,” to add another set of eyes. As I arrived with Corchado and his canine at one of the terminals, Orlanes was there to meet us and walk through with us as Malo, eager to get to work, headed for the luggage of people waiting to board their airplanes.

Malo looked to Corchado for a signal that he could start doing his job, barking to let him know he was ready to go. He immediately went to carry-on luggage, sniffing and methodically checking out all bags and boxes as he worked his way down the rows of seated passengers.

Corchado said that Malo will also alert if he senses specific odors related to individuals, including nitroglycerin for heart patients.

The constant work and searching is a process that Corchado refers to as “making the dog brave to the odor.”

To his credit, Malo completely ignores the odors from food being eaten by passengers, as he is very determined and focused on doing his job. Corchado said he handles Malo in a way that allows him to proceed with that job.

The K-9 unit works very closely with not only its members, but with the other officers around LAX. If a car is found abandoned at the curb, or if there is suspicion about cargo, or luggage and packages left unattended, the K-9 officers are notified and come to investigate.

They are always on alert in addition to randomly going through terminals and other areas, directing their canines in this critical work.