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From playful puppy to protecting Airmen: How the Air Force raises MWD’s

Military Working Dog Candy, retired 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron canine, is given a medal by the unit’s commander, Lt. Col. Mark Hamilton, during her and MWD Chandler’s retirement ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Nov. 9, 2017. Candy was deployed six times across the Middle East and became one of the most experienced and decorated military working dogs in the Department of Defense.

Military Working Dog Candy, retired 27th Special Operations Security Forces Squadron canine, rests during her and MWD Chandler’s retirement ceremony at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Nov. 9, 2017. After eight years of service, she retired and was adopted by one of her former handlers in Colorado.

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

Her career, like hundreds of canines before her, serves as a reminder of how powerful a four-legged Airman can be.

For most of these working dogs, it all starts across the Atlantic Ocean. The Military Working Dog Buying Program will travel to European kennels to purchase canines for the Department of Defense. In some cases, however, MWD’s are born and raised at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, where training occurs for both canines and their aspiring handlers. The way to tell the difference between foreign and domestic canines is in their name. For example, if their title is “MWD Kkeaton” or “MWD Ttoby,” the double consonant will signify they’re a Lackland-raised dog through its Puppy Program. Normal names without the double consonant are for all other adopted dogs.

After being adopted, there is a gap before the initial training regimen begins. This training begins for MWD’s between the age of 18 and 24 months. Once they enter the training program, the dogs have 120 days to certify as a graduate.

During this training, they learn all the basics. Basic commands such as down, sit and stay are the starting point. Once they learn these commands, the canines begin learning more advanced techniques such as patrol work, detection and more. Successfully completing the four-month program means they’ll graduate and be assigned their base.

Simultaneously, aspiring handlers train in close proximity. It was an experience that, to Staff Sgt. Kyle Pethtel, 27th Special Operations Security Forces dog handler, was fun and filled with challenges for both canine and handler.

“It felt hard at times because you didn’t know how much work it takes to become ,” Pethtel said. “I remember how nervous we’d be pulling our first working dog.”

Before they get to handle their first working dog, they must learn the basics and commands they’ll respond to. Not only that, they also must learn how to groom them and keep them fit to fight.

After arriving to their new base, the canines will be assigned a handler, charged with maintaining both the MWD’s training and their own. They will also learn more advanced techniques that may pertain to the base.

From there, it’s all about strengthening the bond between handler and canine. Just like Airmen in an office, team chemistry is a vital component for these MWD teams to accomplish the mission. For handler and canine, that mission to serve and defend. Between base patrols and deployments, the bond only strengthens each time they put their bulletproof armor on.

“When we do convoys, canines lead,” said Staff Sgt. Paul Little, 27th SOSFS dog handler. “When we’re down range, dog teams lead the way. It’s one of the most vital components to any mission they’re involved in.”

It’s an honor that MWD Candy will get to have one last time before she trades those heavy vests in for a simple collar and leash when she arrives to her new adopted home. A former handler of the retiring canine, Tech. Sgt. Joshua Fehringer will be adopting Candy to provide her with a loving and understanding home in Colorado. From puppy to Airman, the cycle of these Air Commandos careers is a long, arduous one that requires as much sacrifice as the thousands of Airmen they serve and protect.