DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Dec. 17, 2014 —
The shop is full of constant howling, with bones and bouncy balls scattered on the floor and a pungent smell throughout.
Ivan, a black, thick-haired German shepherd military working dog, lies on a couch and greets visitors with a slobbery lick.
It's just another day for Ivan and Air Force Staff Sgt. Andre Hernandez, a 7th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler.
Hernandez has been a handler at kennels here for three years. He started out performing normal security forces jobs such as checking identification cards at the gate and conducting routine patrols. In 2010, he attended dog handler training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
Grateful for the Opportunity
Only a select few get the opportunity to work with canines in the Air Force. Hernandez said he always liked dogs and that he is grateful for this opportunity. "What really made me want to be a handler was how well-trained the military working dogs were and the amount of obedience they have," he added. "I always loved dogs, and actually getting paid to work and train them every day is very rewarding."
Most days, Hernandez and Ivan train on their course, working on commands and obedience and providing security and explosive and narcotic deterrence for the base. When tasked to deploy, the pair takes on a different mission.
"While at home station, the mission is more focused on security, law enforcement, explosive and narcotic deterrence, locating suspects and educating the public through demonstrations," Hernandez explained. On deployments, the mission is to counter improvised explosive devices and to provide narcotics protection to U.S. and coalition forces. “And we have the capability of locating high-value targets or suspected personnel," Hernandez said.
After special training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, Hernandez and Ivan deployed for the first time together.
A Remarkable Bond
By being together at all times, Hernandez said, the handler and the dog form a remarkable bond. "Having a good bond with my dog is one of the most important things I want as a handler," he added. "At the end of the day, we are a team, and working together is what makes us an effective threat to our enemies."
Although handlers are taught at the same school, they all have their own way of building a good rapport with their military working dog, Hernandez said. Just like people, he added, no two dogs are the same, and it's important for handlers to know that, because they can have different canines throughout their career.
"I have had five dogs throughout my time as a handler, and patience and consistency in my opinion, are very important," he said. "Setting a schedule and sticking to it gives the dog something to look forward to every day. Building that strong rapport also builds trust. Most importantly, I always try to play with him and let him be a dog."
Hernandez said he’s living his dream -- working outside, getting a little dirty, and teaching and training man's best friend every day.
"Staff Sergeant Hernandez is very knowledgeable when it comes to training and understanding military working dogs," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Castillo, the 7th SFS kennel master. "He has already passed many handlers and continues to strive to be the best."