MWD handlers--more than just dogs

Rango, 56th Security Forces Squadron military working dog, licks Staff Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, 56th Security Forces Squadron MWD handler, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, Nov. 17, 2015. It’s important for MWD handlers to develop a good working relationship with their dogs to strengthen the bond between them, Gonzalez said. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Hensley)

Rango, 56th Security Forces Squadron military working dog, licks Staff Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, 56th Security Forces Squadron MWD handler, at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, Nov. 17, 2015. It’s important for MWD handlers to develop a good working relationship with their dogs to strengthen the bond between them, Gonzalez said. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman James Hensley)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- While most view dogs as pets, a select few Airmen view them as partners and the difference between life and death for more than just themselves. These Airmen are trained to deploy with Military Working Dogs who detect explosive devices in order to save the lives of other deployed members.

One Airman came into the Air Force with the goal of becoming a MWD handler.

"I grew up with a love for dogs and seeing them work and wanted to learn the skill set myself," said Staff Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, 56th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler. "I joined the Air Force in 2009 knowing I wanted to be in security forces, and I had a passion for it."

Becoming a MWD handler is a long process which requires time in security forces, a detailed application, tight selection process and months of training after being selected. The job requires a lot from the MWD handlers including working weekends, time training and prepping for short-notice and no-notice deployments or secret service support. They train on explosives and drug detection, both of which are used stateside and abroad by military and civilians.

Each MWD is unique, and Gonzalez has to approach training each one differently.

"Every day I come to work is a new day; the dogs are always excited to see you and excited to learn something new," Gonzalez said. "They're constantly willing to push my buttons and make me better than I was before. Learning to trust somebody and making a bond isn't easy but it's something that can easily be broken."

The connection Gonzalez has with the dogs shows.

"I enjoy the new obstacles and challenges and knowing at the end of the day your partner always has your back," Gonzalez said. "They are eager to please you because that's how dogs are. They just want to feel loved, so they'll do anything and everything to have that relationship."

Gonzalez's commitment to the job is noticed by his coworkers as well.

"Gonzalez is eager to learn all the different aspects of K-9 training when it comes to gaining as much knowledge as he can for the MWD program," said Staff Sgt. Jessica Keller, 56th SFS MWD handler. "This job is always evolving and new tactics and training methods are constantly being utilized. His knowledge of the MWD is extremely important not only for his own K-9 partner but for the mentorship of other handlers. In the future I see Staff Sgt. Gonzalez pursing his K-9 career from handler to trainer where he can help educate newer handlers and military working dogs."

Gonzalez looks toward the future with ambitious goals.

"Right now I'm happy with what I'm doing, but would like to take the tools I've learned to the school house for military working dog handlers, or if that's not possible, do it locally on the outside," Gonzalez said. "Not very many people can say they get to come to work every day with dogs. I wouldn't trade this for anything else."