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What I Learned Training To Be A Dog Handler

I remember it like it was yesterday. I sent my tactical explosive detection dog (T.E.D.D) out to search a vacant lot, full of empty semi trailers that we used for training. Tessa was her name and she was a beautiful, brown Belgian malinois. When I got her, I knew that she was the one because of how trained she was. She was obedient and responded to all of my commands easily and without distraction, unlike the dog that I was training with prior. 

He was a pit bull mix that had an amazing nose and could find any of the training material, no matter where we hid it. Ceiling? Under the sofa? Inside cabinets or in the gas tank of a car? He found it. What I couldn’t get him to not do was try to retrieve it. He would jump on top of the beds, counters and try to dig up anything that we buried, and that’s the last thing you want your dog to do when you are looking for bombs.

Tessa was not like that. When she found odor, her change of direction was so sharp that I would always know if she was on odor or lost track of the scent. She obeyed hand movements so that I wouldn’t have to yell for her to know a command. When she found the source of the odor, she would sit and would not budge, even when we did scenarios with explosions and gunshots being fired, waiting for me to reward her and call her back to me. She never dug or jumped on anything without being directed. When I had to buddy carry her up a ladder and help her into a window or over a fence, she didn’t flail or make it difficult for me. 

I had it good. For over a week, her and I passed all of the training scenarios with ease. When we went on our daily run, she never pulled at the leash or was distracted by the wildlife. She was everything I would have hoped for in a dog and I would have loved to take her to war when we graduated together. 

The night before certification day, I received some devastating news. News that was so bad that it eventually put me into a very dark depression. My trainers always told me “Our emotions travel down leash.” Meaning that what the handler feels, so does the dog. 

When I sent my dog to search the vacant lot, Tessa did not want to move. I gave her the command to search and she looked at me, got up and just walked around as if she was looking for a place to use the bathroom. I tried to become excited so that I would sound more fun and make it seem like we were playing a game of hide and seek and she was not having it. My trainer didn’t understand what was going on and told me to go away and play with her to see if that could get her in work mode. She still did not want to work. 

My trainer came to me and asked me if everything was wrong with me and when I took my glasses off, he could see that I was holding back tears. I told him the bad news and he said that that may be a huge factor of why she wasn’t working and this is what taught me a valuable lesson. Her and I work extremely well together when things were going good, but considering that I never really needed to work because she already knew how to do everything, I did not gain the experience and knowledge to know how to make her work on the bad days. How could I know how to work her when she was uncomfortable, sad, scared and tired if I never needed to work her?

My next dog was a black lab named Midnight. He was very young and energetic but very immature. He only wanted to play and he got distracted very easily. He would love to chase animals and he wanted to run to people and make them pet him. My classmates laughed at me because of how goofy and clumsy he was. When I first got him, I was beyond upset. The first day he slept in my room, I just knew that I was going to fail and not graduate as a tactical explosive detection dog handler. For the next week, we trained hard and I was miserable. I would train him for hours after class was over. I would play fetch with him. I would run with him. I would work commands with him. It was hard and I hated it. 

Certification day came and I was very nervous. I commanded Midnight to sit and stay as the instructor gave me the directions. Once he was done, he asked me if I completely understood the rules and if I was ready. I looked at Midnight and he looked at me. I tested the wind direction, figured out which way I wanted to send Midnight and commanded him to search. Immediately Midnight took off. If he made it out of bounds, I projected a command and he instantly turned around and continued searching. He saw a squirrel and darted after it but when I corrected him with a stern command, he slowed down, straightened his tail and put his nose back to the ground and continued his search pattern. 

His head shot to the right and his pace sped up until immediately sitting down and looking at me. I crossed my fingers and told the instructor that my dog found the source. The instructor asked me if I was positive and if we were in war, would I be willing to make that a positive call. I said that I did. The instructor told me to praise my dog and he held out his hand for a handshake and congratulated me. 

Getting Midnight was the best thing for me because it involved me working. I had to know how to get him to work on the good days as well as the bad. I had to learn how to get him to work when there were distractions and things that were fun. I had to learn that we were two pieces of a machine and to be able to work properly we had to understand how we both worked. Midnight and I went to Afghanistan in 2011-2012. Our bond was beyond unbreakable. 

What I learned as a dog handler is that we tend to always want to have the easy way of beating the system. Sometimes we may get some of the rewards of success by doing the easy things but doing that does not build true strength and resilience. Always choosing the easy way will never teach you what you need to know when things get hard. They won’t show you what you need to do when the machines that you are in control of doesn’t want to work. I will promise you this is that the bond that you build with hard work will be way more stronger than if it was easily obtained. 

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