CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, NM – The military working dog is always one rank higher than its handler.
It’s a tradition made out of respect for a workforce of 2,300 Department of Defense canines that are stationed around the world, deployed alongside their human counterparts. Their ranks are given as a sign that the dog should be trusted. From bomb detection to patrol services, they share the same devotion and sacrifice as people do.
But they start their days differently. For Staff Sgt. Kyle Pethtel, 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron dog handler, and his canine, MWD Ari Valdo, it begins with a morning roll around in the dirt outside.
“You could never guess seeing us out throughout base, but when its play time, he acts like puppy,” Pethtel said. “[Ari Valdo] is unique because of how big of a spaz he is.”
Known as “Ari” to those who work with him, Ari Valdo has been protecting Cannon for just over two years, and the pair have worked together since November 2016.
As military canines usually maintain their home base throughout their career, he’ll likely continue his adventures at Cannon.
Adventure is something Pethtel strives for, which is why he pursued the dog handler career field. Prior to becoming one April 2017, the closest thing to an office he’d worked in was his patrol car.
“I saw the career field was challenging,” Pethtel said. “I love the connection a handler has with his dog.”
That connection with Ari, thus far, has been developed solely at Cannon.
“Ari and I have only worked on patrol here at Cannon. Luckily we haven’t had any real world incidents where he has had to apprehend a suspect.”
It’s given him time to bond and connect with Ari, whose dangerously-infectious amounts of energy has rubbed off on Pethtel.
“I absolutely love having a dog as a partner,” Pethtel explained. “Being a handler, there is a lot more behind the scenes that no one sees. These are living, breathing animals and need the care and treatment as much as any other animal. If the dog is sick, you’re there all day and night observing his/her health.”
It’s a process that the veterans of the kennels know too well, because when the time comes to deploy, everyone must be ready. Staff Sgt. Paul Little, 27th SOSFS dog handler, has worked with Cannon’s canine kennels since October 2015.
His first canine partner was Jackson, a dual-purpose certified MWD. Their bond was tested immediately, as they were deployed soon after they were both certified to work together. There, the readiness and bond of both dog and handler were tested in a way few have ever experienced.
At a deployed site, Little and Jackson were called to attention at a truck cab near the base. As the two approached the vehicle and circled around it, Jackson threw a “change of behavior,” or when a military working dog detects something suspicious.
“We’re trained to always trust the dog in these situations,” Little said. “On a daily basis, we inspect hundreds of vehicles.”
After circling around multiple times to see if it was a fluke, Little realized Jackson had thrown a change of behavior every time they approached the backside of the truck cab. There, they found a Bluetooth device attached to the back of the cab. Little immediately contacted appropriate forces to take over the scene.
Little trusted the dog’s instinct that the package could be dangerous, and immediately called for backup. The situation was handled by security forces after the individuals driving the truck were apprehended. In the end, the situation was resolved.
“Afterwards, the biggest thought on my mind was what would’ve happened to all of us had Jackson not detected the package.”
Now back at Cannon, Jackson is the second most experienced canine of the seven stationed here. He and Little went on to work with secret service agents for several assignments. Although he now has a condition called pannus, rendering him partially blind, his personality and work ethic haven’t changed.
“His condition is being treated and is under control,” Little explained. “He’s known as our ‘blind dog’ but don’t let that fool you: he still outperforms a lot of our other canines.”
In his nine years of service, Jackson has given his all to both his handler and country. He and Little no longer work together, but their bond remains engraved.
“I’ve always wanted to work with dogs. When we were deployed, MWD Jackson and I spent every day with each other for nearly eight months. It was and still is a special relationship. It proves that to us handlers, they are nothing without us and we are nothing without them.”