The dedication of Defenders, K-9 partners

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Keira Rossman
  • 47th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

It was a transformative moment in military history when the Army initiated training for its pioneering War Dog Program, commonly referred to as the "K-9 Corps." This groundbreaking development, according to American Humane Society, marked the inaugural inclusion of Military Working Dogs (MWD) within the ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces.  

Since that historic milestone, MWDs have steadfastly served as vital and irreplaceable assets. 

"Since their first recognition dating back to March 13, 1942, MWDs have been an effective asset in layered defense both at home and abroad,” said Tech. Sgt. William Slifer, 47th Security Forces Squadron kennel master. “To this day, they remain one of the military’s greatest force multipliers in garrison and deployed operations. Their unwavering contribution to the force does not go unnoticed." 

Laughlin is home to dedicated Defenders and canine companions who have played a pivotal role in safeguarding a mission of building combat-ready Airmen, leaders and pilots. Among them, Staff Sgt. William Shine, 47th SFS military working dog handler, shares his story and bond with MWD Tuko.   

"Like some, college wasn't something I was interested in pursuing," stated Shine when asked why he joined the military. "I was still trying to find out what I wanted to do with my life, and I thought going into the military would give me more time to decide what that would be. But as a young Airman at the gate scanning IDs and watching planes, it was hard for me to find pride in that."  

After his second duty assignment at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Shine started working closer with K-9s, where he found that sense of job fulfillment he had been missing.   

"When I was assigned my first dog, I was just hoping I didn't do anything wrong with him or create any bad habits for the time I had him," recalled Shine. "After graduating from handlers course, you're not necessarily above reproach in the field for about a year or two, depending on the person. You are still learning from a lot of knowledgeable senior handlers who have something beneficial to teach you."  

After an extensive 10 years of working alongside K-9s, Shine was stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base. Here, he is paired with MWD Tuko, whom he has worked with for three months.  

A daily look into their everyday routine begins with Shine and his team feeding the MWDs, followed by attending guard mount - the process during which security personnel receive their assignments, equipment, and briefing before they assume their duties as sentries or guards at various posts on the base.   

Approximately an hour and a half into his routine, Shine takes Tuko to the obedience yard, where they engage in center-line drills and obedience training. Afterward, they walk around crucial high-visibility buildings at Laughlin to meet their detection and security timing requirements.  

"A tired dog is a happy dog," said Shine. "When we have free time, I'll try and throw the KONG to Tuko to help increase his endurance for the future as well as sharpen obedience commands to be sharper."  

After 10 years of working as a K-9 handler, Shine has picked up a few tricks of the trade regarding training.   

"The pillars of training are consistency, accountability, and challenges,” said Shine. “We teach, train, and proof. When creating a new task, I like to make it fun and enjoyable. Then, once he's proved he's proficient, I use that task that we perfected in training the field when he's in a different mindset."  

This training regime showcases progress in small things they work day-to-day. However, it is a journey marked by trust, discipline, and mutual growth where the small victories they achieve together reflect a much larger narrative of dedication and partnership.  

"Right now, we're working on Tuko's ability to do tasks more off-leash. He's already very capable of doing everything given his age; now we're just trying to push the envelope before he retires. He's a confident, social, wise old man."  

Shine comments that daily training fosters a strong bond between handlers and their MWDs and cultivates trust among handlers. Handlers and MWDs found their trust in the shared understanding that handlers always prioritize the safety of MWDs, and reciprocally, MWDs will safeguard their handlers.  

"Trusting your MWD and them trusting you is what separates average teams from great teams," explained Shine. "It's a team effort in everything we do."  

MWDs serve as an extra set of eyes and ears, capable of detecting hidden threats and illegal and dangerous substances that might elude human detection. Moreover, the mere presence of a K-9 can deter potential adversaries, bolstering the team's psychological advantage.  

"When you have the capability to find illegal substances easily with a nose 100,000 times more powerful than a human's, a dog makes someone second guess doing an illicit behavior,” said Shine. “People know getting bit by a dog hurts, so it keeps people at bay most of the time."  

The dedication of handlers and their loyal companions, such as Shine and Tuko, is shaping the training of future Air Force K-9 handlers. Experience strengthens the entire community of handlers and their K-9 partners, ensuring that knowledge, expertise, and core principles are shared.  

As new handlers learn from senior handler’s experiences and accomplishments, they inherit a legacy beyond training techniques; it encompasses the intangible qualities of teamwork, camaraderie, and the deep bond forged between handlers and dogs.  

"As a senior handler, you hope that you can lead by example and pass on the knowledge that was passed to you," said Shine, "and I feel like I'm doing that with Tuko."