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Play a little, learn a lot: MWDs, handlers learn to trust

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Mosher stands with Zix, his military working dog, March 1, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Military working dogs spend hours interacting with their trainers to familiarize canines with common tasks. Mosher is a military working dog handler assigned to the 354th Security Forces Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Willard E. Grande II)

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Mosher stands with Zix, his military working dog, March 1, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Military working dogs spend hours interacting with their trainers to familiarize canines with common tasks. Mosher is a military working dog handler assigned to the 354th Security Forces Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Willard E. Grande II)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Few bonds compare to the one that exists between a man and a canine, and the success of military working dogs and their handlers often depends on that bond.

Military working dog handlers appreciate the importance of building a partnership with their assigned dog, knowing the sooner trust exists between the two, the more effective the team.

It is a relationship the 354th Security Forces Squadron military working dog section works tirelessly to build.

Trust may be the single most important concept in dog handling, said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Drake, 354th Security Forces military working dog trainer.

"If the dog cannot trust you or you cannot trust the dog, there cannot be a rapport established and you will never become a team," Drake said. "You will make mistakes and you have to be willing to let the dog make mistakes."

With only a few months of training, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Mosher, 354th SFS military working dog handler and patrol section flight chief, faces his greatest challenge in dog handling -- building a relationship with his canine. The ability to adjust and adapt during this time is critical to becoming an effective team.

Military working dogs spend hours upon hours interacting with trainers to familiarize canines with common tasks otherwise known to the dogs as "play time."

"It looks like play time for the dog and in a sense it is ... ," said Mosher. "Everything needs to be fun for the dog ... and positive."

Handlers use play time to achieve specific outcomes applied in scenarios as building blocks for the next step in training or transitioning. For example, a canine may be asked to drop a tennis ball, said Mosher, and later asked to drop something else, by which point that command has already been engrained into the canine via training.

"When you achieve that level of rapport there is nothing that dog won't do for you," said Mosher. "Once it's achieved, it's unbreakable."

Working with a new dog is like working with a young Airman, said Drake, who has worked with several different dogs during his time in the Air Force. One thing that helps is learning by example and watching other handlers, he added. Patience and open-mindedness are other qualities, shaping today's more qualified military working dog trainers.

"Technical Sergeant Mosher has that passion and love for his job that can't be taught," Drake said. "He has that willingness to learn and make mistakes with his dog that will continue to advance the both of them."

Training at Eielson's military working dog section takes patience and motivation, but in the end pays off. Its handlers have learned that no two dogs are alike and that if they want a real chance at success, the old adage, "if at first you don't succeed, try try again," goes a long way, said Drake.

"By watching Technical Sergeant Mosher, other handlers see there is much more to being a K-9 trainer than just cross training and getting a dog," he said.

The military working dog is a military asset, a threat deterrent and force multiplier. Whether its discovering the location of an improvised explosive device in the rocky terrain of Afghanistan or chasing down a "perp" in the snow-covered tundra at Eielson, the special relationship between handlers and their dogs helps keep Airmen out of harm's way.