Bonds with K-9 co-workers hard to break
January 6, 2009
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — When Cpl. Kate Stanford arrived on Okinawa five months ago, she was assigned to Meister, a 5-year-old military working dog.
She immediately began building a bond with him.
"He kind of looked like, ‘Who are you? Where is my daddy?’ " Stanford, 21, from Hubbard, Ohio, recalled of their first meeting at the Marine Provost Marshal’s Office K-9 kennel on Kadena Air Base.
Fortunately, the German shepherd is carefree, and it’s been "easy to build rapport with him," she said. It also helped that his last handler was still on Okinawa and talked with her about Meister’s personality and quirks — such as a penchant for nipping at his handler’s ankles.
But it’s not always so easy for dogs when they change handlers or their handler goes on leave. Some even sink into depression.
All the new handler can do, Stanford said, is train and play with the dog. It’s time well spent because it creates trust in their own as well as their dog’s capabilities, she said.
That bonding time is especially important at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, where all airmen serve one-year, unaccompanied tours.
Because of the high turnover at the Spartan, remote location on Korea’s west coast, military dog handlers have to find new ways to bond with their charges in a shorter time, according to an American Forces Network news report.
In the AFN report, dog handler Staff Sgt. Charles Eubanks explained the process they use to build that bond.
"We’ll go through what we call the rapport week, where there’s no commands. You just go out and walk the dogs, play fetch with them, just kind of build that relationship and that bond between the dog and the handler," he said.
From there, Eubanks said, handlers will work on basic obedience and patrol and detection before actually going to work.
The dog handlers say the key issue is trust.
The dogs are used primarily in explosives and narcotics detection but also undergo aggression training to learn to pursue and subdue suspects.
Handlers literally trust their lives on their dogs’ noses, particularly with explosive detection dogs, Stanford said.
"That leash is only six feet. If he decides to step on [a bomb], you’re in trouble," she said.
It’s not easy working with new dogs. Each has its own personality, and what works with one dog might not work with another dog, she said.
But most military dogs have had multiple handlers and know what is happening when they get a new one, she added.
Just like a child, a dog will test a new handler to see what it can get away with, Stanford said.
Sometimes, dog and handler just don’t click. When that happens, the dog is reassigned.
"You don’t try to force the relationship on the dog," Stanford said.
She was assigned a second dog, Darra, about two months ago, and it’s been a little harder to build that relationship, she said.
Darra had deployed to Iraq with her previous handler. That created a tight bond between Darra and that handler, which means Stanford will have to work harder with her.
Lance Cpl. Chase Paustian, 24, from Aurora, Ill., knows about the closer ties developed during a deployment. He and his dog, Waldo, recently returned to Okinawa from seven months in Anbar province, Iraq.
Waldo, a Belgian Malinois, "is a great dog" to work with, he said.
"He’ll work until he just can’t move anymore. He’s always just a happy dog all the time," Paustian said.
In Iraq, the two went everywhere together except the chow hall, Paustian said. The exchange, haircuts, watching movies in the lounge; Waldo even slept with him.
Waldo also gets jealous if Paustian talks to other dogs, staring out of his kennel as if his handler were cheating on him, Paustian said with a smile.
"It was hard to come back and not be together all the time," he said.
He has tried to ease Waldo back into kennel life by spending as much time with him as possible during the day, he said.
But it will be "really hard" on both of them when Paustian is transferred to a new duty station.
"It’s going to be like your kid going to college," he said. "It’s going to be tough."
Stars and Stripes’ T.D. Flack contributed to this report.