Military working dogs, handlers bond during training at North Carolina AFB

Air Force Staff Sgt. Connor Oien, left, a military working dog handler at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, prepares to demonstrate the patrol skills of 3-year-old Tessa, a Belgian malinois, while the decoy, Staff Sgt. Jacob Cokkinias, (in brown) walks behind them at the dog park in Goldsboro, N.C., on May 15, 2019.


By EDDIE FITZGERALD | Goldsboro News-Argus | Published: May 27, 2019

GOLDSBORO, N.C. — Tessa sat at attention in the grass on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base intently watching Staff Sgt. Jacob Cokkinias, who was wearing a thick, dark protective coat and staring right at her.

Tessa, a 6-year-old Belgian malinois, raced toward Cokkinias but immediately stopped inches away from attacking when ordered to by her handler, Staff Sgt. Connor Oien.

The air base recently gave a demonstration of the Air Force's working military dogs, showing how handlers work with highly trained animals that can apprehend a person and take him or her back to the dog's handler.

Oien, who has been stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base for a little more than two years, said he loves being a military dog handler.

"It's awesome," he said. "It's the best job in the Air Force to me. You get to come to work every day and play with the dog and train the dogs. You go on a lot of cool missions with them as well and spend a lot of time together."

The military dogs are trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The training starts when they are 6-month-old puppies, and they are certified when they are a year and a half old. Then they are shipped to other Air Force bases where their training is molded to the different programs they are needed for, Oien said.

The dogs work detecting explosives, narcotics and patrolling. Some of the tasks the dogs are used for include searching vehicles, presidential details and deploying overseas. There are currently three military dogs on deployment from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Oien could not say where they were currently serving.

Besides Belgian malamutes, the Air Force also works with German shepherds and Dutch shepherds, Oien said.

When Cokkinias, of Tennessee, isn't a decoy running from the military working dogs, he is also one of the dog handlers. Even being attacked by the dogs as a decoy, which all of the handlers are required to do, he loves the work, he said.

Being a decoy helps the men better understand when and why a dog's behavior changes, which helps them know when the dogs are detecting narcotics or bombs, he said.

"I would say it was the best choice I made," Cokkinias said. "I was actually thinking about getting out. When I applied for K-9, I was like I want to do this job. I'd been training hunting dogs for five or six years before I got in the military. My dad always taught me a lot of stuff."

Cokkinias said he has been on seven or eight Secret Service missions with his dog Zippo since becoming a military working dog handler about seven months ago. Most of the missions involved searching for possible explosives, he said.

"You have to love your job to do it," he said. "We have to get up every day. You have to take care of them. Everybody thinks of them as like an asset, but they are still an animal that you have to take care of. They are your partner."

Seymour Johnson Air Force Base has six handlers, one trainer and a kennel master for the military working dogs.

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