AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy - The wind blows past her ears as she sprints across a field to chase down her target. Tora sets off to tackle any obstacle her handler has put her up against. Words can't completely describe the bond the two have for one another.
The bond between Tora, 31st Security Forces Squadron explosives and patrol military working dog, and Tech. Sgt. Gabriel Travers, 31st SFS MWD handler, started with a test of strength. It was measured against real-life scenarios from deployments and continues on through the luxuries of home life with a new family.
U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Gabriel Travers, 31st Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler and Tora, explosives and patrol MWD, finish playing outside in the training grounds, June 23, 2015, at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Tora recently retired and was adopted by her handler's family. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith)
“I look at her not only as a dog, but as a person who saved my husband's life,” said Megan Travers. “I respect and love Tora, because I know what they've been through.”
The experiences started five years ago when Travers was recommended for training as a handler. His superiors noticed something that set him apart from other defenders.
“My chief told me my personality would be great to serve as a handler,” said Travers. “I think he saw that I take charge, but am also a compassionate and caring individual.”
Compassion and leadership are essential when training MWDs, said Travers.
“It takes dedication for the handler to know when to have a firm hand with their dog,” said Tech. Sgt. Keaton Mickle, 31st SFS MWD trainer. “There is a time and place to play, and one to be dedicated to the mission. Travers has a good understanding of that balance.”
Travers returned from K9 School and was paired with his first dog, Fuels. Fuels excelled in sniffing out smuggled narcotics, but he lacked the aggressive temperament to apprehend people during an arrest.
Seven months later Travers moved to Aviano Air Base, Italy, and to a new dog. Tora was the polar opposite, aggressive in all regards, even with something as simple as eating food. Tora challenged Travers, and the two built a relationship that looked more like family than a working partnership.
“You grow to love your dog because of the amount of time and effort spent with them,” said Travers. “Then there are times when the dog is telling you ‘No, I'm not going to do it today,' and they frustrate you to no end.”
Countless hours of training and reading behavior books helped Travers shape Tora's behavior so she could effectively search for explosive devices and engage with aggressors.
Throughout training, their trust and respect evolved for one another as commands slowly became requests during real life scenarios.
“I tell a dog to do something when I'm training them,” said Travers. “After they understand what I want them to do, I shift to the ask mentality so we can accomplish our task together.”
The duo deployed to the deserts of Afghanistan in 2012, where tasks they needed to accomplish would push their bond of love and trust to the limits.
Military working dogs and their handlers are assigned to ground units on the front line, where they search for explosives in an effort to save lives of the service members behind them.
“There was a time when we were in too many fire fights and she didn't want to work anymore, she was mentally done after being so close to explosions,” said Travers. “All I could do was to try and ask her to put her life on the line for me and let her know I'd protect her.”
Travers would often ask himself, “How can I ask her to do it again?” or “How can I expect her to do anything else?” There was no option for them to leave that environment and be replaced by a less-experienced team; he would rather stick it out and fix their problems, he said.
“If you're scared to walk outside the wire, the dog can sense that and they're not going to work efficiently,” said Travers. “At the end of the day in those environments, we loved each other and survived through it together.”
Those difficult times remind Travers of how strong of a bond they have. The dog handler is dependent on the keen senses of a canine and the canine is dependent on the loving protection of the dog handler.
The pair returned from the Afghanistan deserts to ripe vineyards surrounding Aviano, eager to continue their training with walks around the flightline perimeter. The next three years were spent re-certifying and keeping both Tora's and Travers' senses alert until the final day of duty would come.
Tora, now 11, enjoys her plush pillow bed in the kennels. Newly retired, she can now accept petting and treats from strangers.
“Tora knows something is about to happen because we haven't worked together since early June,” said Travers. “I want my family there with me to bring her home from the kennels because she is more than a dog, she is like my child.”
Tora will have plenty of time to adjust to the active Travers' family lifestyle with two young boys and a wife that likes to run.
“One thing I have to remember, is even though she's a retired working dog she needs to be active,” said Travers. “But I'm envisioning plenty of cuddle time too because she needs and thrives on love and affection.”
Although their work together is done, Travers and Tora will forever have a bond that is inseparable, made stronger by hardships they faced. Looking back on their time together, Travers said the “Guardians of the Night” poem is a perfect representation of his MWD experiences.
“Trust in me my friend for I am your comrade. I will protect you with my last breath when all others have left you and the loneliness of the night closes in. I will be at your side...
...If we should meet again on another street I will gladly take up your fight. I am a Police Working Dog and together we are guardians of the night.”
By U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Cary Smith
Provided through DVIDS
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