GOLDSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Tessa sat at attention in the grass on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base intently watching Staff Sgt. Jacob Cokkinias, who was wearing a thick, dark protective coat and staring right at her.
Tessa, a 6-year-old Belgian malinois, raced toward Cokkinias but immediately stopped inches away from attacking when ordered to by her handler, Staff Sgt. Connor Oien.
The air base recently gave a demonstration of the Air Force's working military dogs, showing how handlers work with highly trained animals that can apprehend a person and take him or her back to the dog's handler.
Oien, who has been stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base for a little more than two years, said he loves being a military dog handler.
"It's awesome," he said. "It's the best job in the Air Force to me. You get to come to work every day and play with the dog and train the dogs. You go on a lot of cool missions with them as well and spend a lot of time together."
Seymour Johnson has six handlers, one trainer and a kennel master for the military working dogs.
The dogs are trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The training starts when they are 6-month-old puppies, and they are certified when they are a year and a half. Then they are shipped to other Air Force bases, where their training is molded to the different programs for which they are needed, Oien said.
The dogs work detecting explosives or narcotics and patrolling. Some of the tasks the dogs are used for include searching vehicles, presidential details and deploying overseas. There are currently three military dogs on deployment from Seymour Johnson, although Oien could not say where they are currently serving.
Besides Belgian malinois, the Air Force also works with German shepherds and Dutch shepherds, Oien said.
Cokkinias, of Tennessee, is also one of the dog handlers. He loves the work, he said, even when it means being attacked by the dogs as a decoy, which all of the handlers are required to do.
Being a decoy helps the airmen better understand when and why a dog’s behavior changes, which helps them know when the dogs are detecting narcotics or bombs, he said.
“I would say it was the best choice I made,” Cokkinias said. “I was actually thinking about getting out. When I applied for K-9, I was like, I want to do this job. I’d been training hunting dogs for five or six years before I got in the military. My dad always taught me a lot of stuff.”
Cokkinias said he has been on seven or eight Secret Service missions with his dog Zippo since becoming a military working dog handler about seven months ago. Most of the missions involved searching for possible explosives, he said.
“You have to love your job to do it,” he said. “We have to get up every day. You have to take care of them. Everybody thinks of them as like an asset, but they are still an animal that you have to take care of. They are your partner.”