PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --
There’s nothing moving in morning dark, only a stillness that’s interrupted by the odd buzz from the bugs under street lamps at the Military Working Dog Kennels. The silence is soon shattered as Staff Sgt. Kyle Pethtel, 45th Security Force Squadron MWD handler, whips into the parking lot and slams on his brakes under a street lamp. As he steps out of his car and into the brisk winter breeze, not even the crickets have woken up yet. It’s 4 a.m., but Pethtel doesn’t seem to mind. Awake and alert, he hasn’t allowed an ounce of morning grogginess to permeate; there’s a certain determination to his steps as he walks to the kennels to snag his partner on the way to patrol.
“The best part of my day is walking into the kennel first thing to see my dog,” said Pethtel. “He’sgot a big personality, so when he sees dad you can tell that he has a twinkle in his eye.”
Throughout the duty day there is a tangible father-son bond between the two defenders. It’s this daily connection and trust that they have in each other that allows them to execute the mission, and it starts as soon as Pethtel walks through the kennel door.
Walking into the kennels, all of the dogs erupt into thunderous barking. Pieter, 45th SFS military working dog and Pethtel’s partner, sees him and he immediately perks up. He is pressed as far as he can be up against the entrance to his kennel and tilts his head to the side to make sure it’s Pethtel. Once Pethtel enters the kennel, Pieter playfully rushes him. But it’s time to go to work.
Pethtel describes their bond between each other as being something special.
“We haven’t been together long, but we pair together really well,” said Pethtel. “He’s a goofball, and he needs that father figure to keep him in the right lane, and I provide that for him.”
Having been partnered together since May 2019, and despite contrasting personalities, like Riggs and Murtaugh, they are able to bring out the best in each other, like Turner and Hooch. They both look and act like seasoned veterans in a buddy cop movie while on patrol. Pieter, a lean black and tan Dutch shepard, is disciplined and responds to commands. He can go through inspections without slowing down and analyzing what he is seeing, until Pethtel corrects him and reigns him in.
“Where Sergeant Pethtel is extremely focused and to the point, Pieter sometimes doesn’t realize he’s at work yet,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Caruso, 45th SFS MWD trainer.
In contrast, Pethtel on patrol is almost inhumanly relaxed, and at a stocky 6 feet tall with dark sunglasses, he looks like his heart rate has never risen above 80 beats per minute. On his person, he carries the standard security forces accoutrements. But what stands out is the bulky dog toy strapped to his hip, which is used for issuing commands and training Pieter. Walking on patrol he looks like a cross between a cop and Cesar Milan. He’s deliberately measured and quiet. He almost never raises his voice unless speaking commands to Pieter.
“When it comes to the relationship between us, it’s a balance of trust,” said Pethtel. “When I grab his leash, it’s like a dance.”
Pethtel describes this dance as having to read his surroundings, Pieter’s behavior, and the tension in the leash at the same time. He has to constantly adapt to how Pieter reacts to his surroundings moment by moment.
Recently, while working on Pieter’s training, Pethtel had to constantly readjust how he was reading Pieter and the situation at the exact same time Pieter was tracking a fellow MWD handler.
Pethtel, knowing when to back off and let Pieter work the scent and when to step in allowed both to play off of each other’s strengths. They were then able to successfully track the scent to its source.
“I teach him just as much as he’s teaching me,” says Pethtel. “He will show me a different way to go about things, and the things that will work on him won’t work on other dogs because every dog is different.”
It’s that understanding Pethtel has of Pieter’s psychology that is the key to their relationship. It is also the foundation to the trust they need to safely accomplish the mission. Establishing that connection between them didn’t happen overnight. Pethtel said they had a few weeks where forging trust in each other was top priority, which required they spend hours in kennels and training yard getting to know each other’s personalities.
“If a dog doesn’t like you, if it doesn’t trust you, then the dog doesn’t want you,” said Caruso. “The dog has to trust you, and you have to trust the dog because at the end of the day, the dog could be the only reason you or others make it home safe.”
After the patrol and duty day come to a close, it’s time for them to both part ways. As Pethtel walks out the door, Pieter is ready to see his partner again at 4 a.m. tomorrow.