Every day, thousands of service members and civilians come through the gates of Naval Station Great Lakes (NSGL). And every day, the first person everyone comes across with are the Sailors, Marines, and civilians who check IDs to make sure we are safe. They do a fine job, and are some of the most visible people who we know are looking out for us. But what about the people in the background? The lesser-known Sailors, such as the Great Lakes Navy dog handlers?
Currently there are five Great Lakes dog handlers onboard NSGL: MA2 Kyle Nelson, MA2 Zachary Lyons, MA2 Derrick Olsen, MA2 Matthew Ohrvall, and MA1 Irvin Moment. Each handler is assigned one dog that they are personally responsible for, which means they have to keep their kennel clean, train them multiple times a week, take them to the veterinarian, and all of the other responsibilities that comes with taking care of a dog.
“You got to feed your dogs, along with provide proper maintenance and care,” said Moment. “You have to make sure they are medically fit, check them out from ear down to their tail… along with training, trials, and utilization. Training can consist of pulling the odors of explosives or drugs. We take the odors, hide them in buildings, vehicles, open areas… it can be anywhere, and the dog has to find the odor. That’s everyday.”
To become a dog handler is not a quick process, as most prospective dog handlers go through a few years of regular patrolling as an MA, attain certain qualifications, and once approved, attend the dog handler c-school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. While there, all branches of the military learn how to take care of their dog, how to train their dog, military working dog commands, and many other skills that are required of dog handlers.
“It was a tough process getting my qualifications while being a regular patrolman,” said Moment. “K-9 is an NEC, and its classification is 2005. You have to go to school for it, and it’s a three-month process. Once you complete the school, you can have K-9 orders to go to any command.”
Following basic dog-handler training, military working dogs are sent to various commands and eventually assigned to a specific dog handler where they provide a valuable skill set that can’t be replicated by humans. This skill set includes searching for drugs or explosives, patrolling, and the ability to take down someone on command.
“It’s honestly a tool that law enforcement uses worldwide that will forever be irreplaceable,” said Nelson. “Their capabilities are boundless, and there is nothing you can’t teach a dog to locate. A lot of prisons and local country jails are getting dogs trained to find cell phones. You train them to find lithium batteries, and then they find the cell phones. The reason the Navy needs them is because we are at the forefront, and are the first line of defense. We meet the threat at the gate, and sometimes we go out into town. It’s more then just keeping our people safe… it’s potentially saving lives downrange.”
While the process to become a dog handler is tough, and the actual job itself can be even tougher, all of the Great Lakes dog handlers love their job, as they all form a bond with their military working dog while being able to do a job that can take them all over the world. Dog handlers are occasionally sent on special assignments that take them to places such as Washington D.C., Martha’s Vineyard, and anywhere else high-ranking dignitaries are located and need protection.
“The biggest challenge, and what I love about it the most is that no two dogs are going to be the same, just like no two handlers are going to be the same,” said Nelson. “When it comes time to teach a dog something new, whether it is just something more advanced to critiquing something that they already know to your liking… figuring out what makes them tick, and you finally have that moment where you see what you have been trying to train them works, and they perform the task you are trying to teach them, it’s such a rewarding feeling.”