By Russell Tennyson
Military working dogs, like their human handlers, are assigned to bases. This means when an airman is transferred, his or her K9 partner does not transfer as well. It’s a very emotional experience saying goodbye to a dog who has been your faithful companion and protector for years. Sometimes it means saying goodbye to a dog who has saved your life.
However, if a handler is deployed, the dog goes along.
“It goes back to trust and the time it takes to achieve it,” explains Tech. Sgt. Dominick Peterson of Luke Air Force Base. “If a handler is deployed, they could lose up to six months in achieving that bond with a new dog. So, dog and handler leave together to the deployment and they return together.”
Trust can take a long time to build. New handlers spend time with their assigned dogs, caring for them, exercising and training them – even grooming to help build trust. Of course, strong emotional bonds are made as well.
Luke Air Force Base is home to five dogs; a pack mixed with German Shepherd Dogs and Belgian Malinois, both known for their drive, agility and adaptability. The dogs are trained in basic obedience in Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, before coming to Arizona where they are further trained in narcotics or explosive detection, or patrol. (Some dogs get dual certification in patrol and detection.)
“It’s up to us to get up on the rest of what they need,” says handler Senior Airman Lauren Clifton, adding the training to become a certified handler just a rigorous. “All handlers go through training. You learn basic dog care, veterinary care and how to handle a dog.”
When handlers reach their assigned bases, they train every day with the dog in their specialist area of expertise.
“Dogs trained for narcotics detection will train for that every day in a realistic setting,” explains Clifton. “They practice scouting, detection, patrol, and controlled aggression.”
All the training is more than necessary, and not only when deployed. Clifton recalls a time when she and her dog DC, who she calls the finest dog at LAFB, were called off base to a community in the West Valley for a bomb threat.
“It was surreal. All your training comes into play. The pressure is intense because you’re the one tasked to do this job and many people are depending on you.”
Thankfully in this incident, with the help of Clifton and DC, the entire area was determined safe.
Clifton will soon have to say good-bye to DC as she has been assigned to a base in Korea.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Tech. Sgt. Peterson, Senior Airman Lauren Clifton and all the other handlers as well as their K9 comrades for the sacrifices they make to keep us safe and free.
A version of this article originally appeared in our July/August 2018 issue.