Not your average wingman
By Senior Airman David C. Danford, 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 05, 2015
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- Every day as the sun rises above the horizon, Yokota Air Base's defenders are already hard at work keeping the base safe. Their day begins when they are assigned a patrol car, protective equipment and their partner. Just like in civilian law enforcement, military patrolmen place their lives in their partner's hands, forging bonds of trust and respect. The 374th Security Forces military working dog handlers take that bond to the next level; the dog isn't just their partner, the dog is family.
Kennel masters across the Air Force diligently study personality profiles of their charges, human and canine, to form the best teams possible. Such is the case with Staff Sgt. Nicholas Galbraith, a 374 SFS MWD handler, and his partner, Topa.
"Dogs, just like people, have their own personalities, and Topa and I have the same kind of mentality," Galbraith said. "He's very high drive. He's the kind of dog that when he needs something he'll go straight for it, and I understand that."
As a Belgian Malinois, Topa doesn't possess the jaw strength of a German shepherd, but makes up for it with his boundless energy and fighting spirit according to Galbraith. Like all Air Force defenders, Topa was trained at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, where that fighting spirit cost him half an ear during rough play with the other MWDs. He began to show signs of a dog-aggressive nature. This worked out perfectly for Galbraith.
"When I went back to Lackland for training, both dogs that were assigned to me showed dog-aggressive tendencies." Galbraith said. "It's almost like I was being trained to work with Topa from the start."
According to Galbraith, the personalities of both the handler and the dog are important when forming teams. A large disconnect between the two can cause a pair of otherwise talented individuals to form a lackluster partnership. Learning how to read the emotions and mindset of the animal is just one way that handlers can work to bridge that gap.
"My boy has a lot of energy," Galbraith said proudly, patting Topa's head. "If he was placed with a more laidback handler he'd either be really bored or walk all over that handler."
High drive and energy isn't solely Topa's domain. Galbraith is a self-proclaimed fitness guru who practices martial arts, including muay thai, as a form of stress relief and to maintain his physical well-being.
"Being physically, mentally, spiritually and socially fit is just as important for the dog," Galbraith said. "The whole Airman concept applies to them too because they have to deal with the same stressors we do and sometimes more."
To be prepared for working with his four-legged wingman, Galbraith was given emergency field veterinary care similar to the self-aid and buddy care taught to Airmen in basic military training. This is just one more way in which MWDs are comparable to their human counterparts. Despite all of these similarities, handlers must always remember their partner isn't human.
"Sometimes it's easy to forget that they really are just dogs and still do dog things like sniffing and marking territory," Galbraith said. "It's their pack mentality which makes the MWDs loyal to their handler before anyone else."
Topa is Galbraith's first canine partner outside of training, and they have been working together for one year. Handlers in the Air Force are assigned a different MWD at each base they are assigned to, in contrast to the other branches of service where a team is only broken when one of the members separates from the military.
"Yokota is my first base as a K-9 handler, and Topa's the first K-9 I've worked with," Galbraith said. "I got lucky with him, he's an awesome dog. I'm sure everyone says that about their dog but I truly believe I couldn't have gotten a better partner."