MWD handler — not an ordinary Airman

Photo by Senior Airman JAMES HENSLEY

While most dogs are considered pets, in the Air Force a select few Airmen view them as partners and lifesavers for not just themselves, but for others. These Airmen are trained to deploy with military working dogs who detect explosive devices in advance of lives being in danger.

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

“I grew up with a love for dogs and seeing them work, I wanted to learn the skillset myself,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, 56th Security Forces Squadron Military Working Dog handler. “I joined the Air Force in 2009 because I wanted to get out on my own. I came in knowing I wanted to be in security forces because I had a passion for it.”

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

Each MWD is unique, and Gonzalez approaches training each one differently.

“Every day I get to come to work is a new day,” he said. “The dogs are always excited to see you and learn something new. They’re constantly pushing my buttons and making me better than I was before I got to work. Learning to trust somebody and making a bond isn’t easy but once it’s solid, it’s something that can’t 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 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 used. 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 Gonzalez pursing a K-9 career from handler to trainer where he can help educate newer handlers and military working dogs.”

Gonzalez looks toward the future with goals firmly established.

“Right now I’m happy with what I’m doing but would like to take this skillset and the tools I’ve acquired to the school house for MWD handlers,” he said. “If that’s not possible, I’d like to do it locally on the outside. Not very many people can say they get to come to work every day with dogs. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”