“Handlers need to find a balance between worktime and play,” explained Travers.
And Kerry gets plenty of both.
“In his off-time, we go to the baseball field on Area A and play tug-of-war. We let him swim sometimes; it’s good for exercise,“ said Toepperwein. “We did water training with him, like through some creeks, to see if he would go across and of course he did, and he didn’t even stop. I had to go through the river, too, to go get him.”
It’s clear that the two have a strong bond, as do all of the handlers and their partners.
“They become part of your family,” said Travers. ”You have a working bond and you have an emotional bond. They become like your child, and they could save your life.”
Kerry, a German Shepherd, is just shy of 3 years old, and was bred at the 341st Training Squadron Department of Defense Military Working Dog Center on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.
Kerry had to pass many rigorous tests to qualify as a military working dog. For the first six months of their lives, the puppies bred at Lackland are fostered out, and their health is monitored by specialists. Often, many don’t make the cut.
“By the time they [Lackland] get a litter of puppies and foster them out, when they [the puppies] come back there are very few that make it,” said Toepperwein.
Puppies that won’t bite are disqualified before classes even begin, and then they can still fail at any time, which is good news for those living in the San Antonio area.
“Lackland actually has a lot of dogs that need to be adopted, that are fully trained but just failed out of some portion of the school,” said Toepperwein.
When Kerry completed training, he received orders to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. However, there was additional training that needed to be done before he was ready to protect Wright-Patt.
“Usually when the dogs get here, they aren’t fully trained yet. We try to keep training them and teaching them new things,” said Toepperwein, who has been working with Kerry for the past five months.
Even though Kerry is now well-versed in his job at Wright-Patterson, his education hasn’t stopped.
“I’m teaching him how to open a door,” Toepperwein said. “We try to keep new tricks so it keeps their mind continuing. They can get bored with this job, just like a person, so we keep their mind fresh and let them have fun.”
But Toepperwein certainly isn’t bored with his job. “To me, this is the most rewarding job I can think of. I enjoy it every day; he keeps me happy,” Toepperwein said.
Toepperwein, like the other handlers, had no easy time becoming a military working dog handler. He put in time cleaning the kennels and yard and being a decoy in the bite suit to get the kennel master’s approval.
Once a potential handler has the kennel master’s approval, he or she may apply for the position and, if selected, is sent to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, to learn military working dog patrol, basic training, detection and canine first aid.
The 88th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handlers have the ability to do surgery at the kennels if there is ever the need. They know a full range of first aid care and work regularly with veterinary clinicians to continue learning.
Toepperwein explained that when the military working dogs retire, their handlers have the opportunity to adopt them. He reported that Kerry shows great promise and is expected to have a long career, but when it is time for him to retire, Toepperwein hopes to give his friend a home.