MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan -- Dogs are often thought of as, “a man’s best friend,” but what happens when the Marine Corps trains a dog to it’s standards, gives it a mission and a handler?
When the kennel master assigns a dog to a handler, the Marine Corps standards instilled in both of them allows them to form a team and accomplish a mission not possible without the help of one another.
“When I met her, I saw why they say dogs are family and they treat them like family,” said Lance Cpl. DeSean R. White, military working dog handler with Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron. “She’s my best friend.”
Meet Azra, a 7-year-old female Belgian Malinois, who has been White’s K-9 partner for the past six months out of her five years as a military working dog aboard Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.
Military working dogs like Azra are worth approximately $60,000-$70,000. The cost of training the dog includes food and other necessities needed for its health and performance.
White spends a minimum of three hours a day with Azra in order to sustain and build upon their bond, a sense of trust, and obedience through training.
According to White, establishing this bond started off slow, especially considering the fact he is Azra’s fourth handler. Handlers must put time in from day one in order to create a connection with any military working dog.
“When I first got here, I just went and sat in her kennel,” said White. “Sometimes she would walk away from me and ignore me.”
Upon week two of repeating this process, Azra became more comfortable around White. He then began to pull Azra out of the kennel, train with her and spend quality one-on-one time with her.
The bond these two share may be obvious to people if they witness the way Azra and White work together.
“You can see when they go out together and they’re training, how they bond,” said Sgt. Johnathon E. Pierce, kennel master with H&HS. “She (Azra) will stay around him more than anybody else, even if other people have a toy. That’s really good for our job because if you’re training in the Marines, you want the Marine to respect you and care about what you think. That’s how his dog is. His dog respects him, cares about him and wants to work for him.”
White said, he tried to keep the bond professional in the beginning, but received devastating news from the veterinarian.
“We had one incident where the veterinarian thought she might have a tumor,” said White. “At first, I tried not to get too attached because that was my second or third month handling her and I tried to go in professionally and not get too emotional. As soon as I heard the slight chance of the tumor, my heart dropped. Even changing my duty station and leaving here without her, I don’t know how I’m going to react.”
White now spends as much time with her as possible after experiencing a scenario that could have cut his time with her short.
White comes in on his days off to walk and play with Azra, stays late or comes in early to spend time with her in order to make sure she knows he loves her.
“We have a personal bond,” said White. “I can tell her to do something and she’s on it, and I don’t have to worry about her. I would like to say I make her life more enjoyable by just playing with her and getting her out. I would like to think she notices when I come in on the weekends or another random day, that she is the only dog that gets taken out and she sees that she means something to me.”
White said if it came down to it, he would risk his life for Azra, “in a heartbeat.”
“That dog does great things and if it’s just my life on the line, I can’t smell for drugs or pursue a suspect like she could,” said White. “Given the chance, I would definitely put my life on the line for her if that’s what it took.”
With their close bond, White said their thoughts and feelings are contagious to one another, but no matter how he feels, she always brightens his day.
“I’ve had some pretty bad days, just like anyone else,” said White. “But, when I’m training with her, I don’t think about it. I look at her for that brief moment and she’s happy and I’m happy. It’s never failed once. I go to work and I’m happy because of her. I never knew working with a dog could make me that happy.”
According to White, working with Azra is not just a job, but a privilege to have such an amazing personal and professional bond between them and will be something he strives to strengthen every day.