By Airman 1st Class Dennis Hoffman
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — The strength of a working relationship can grow exponentially after arriving to work and seeing your co-worker jump all around his cage recklessly wagging his tail, standing fast ready to cover your face with big, fat, slobbery kisses.
That is the reality for a military working dog handler in the 21st Security Forces Squadron.
Senior Airman Tariq Russell and his dog, Ppaul, rely on the relationship they developed with each other to create a safe working environment at Peterson Air Force Base while protecting Airmen.
Thanks partly to his father, Russell’s love for dogs began when he was a young boy growing up in Southern California.
“Since I can remember, my father has been breeding dogs,” said Russell. “We had around 20 dogs in my backyard at any given time and because of that up-bringing — that’s what interested me most about being a military working dog handler and working with these dogs.”
Conversely, Russell quickly pointed out that his passion for dogs had some growing to do in the beginning.
“The first dog that I had growing up was a Rottweiler,” said Russell. “I was absolutely terrified of it at first. However, once I got more exposed to dogs and became more accustomed to them, that’s when my fascination took off and it was just a whole other experience from then on.”
Fast forward to February 2016 and Russell is now a graduate of Canine School and a fully certified military working dog handler. He was ecstatic to learn about the dog that will accompany him during every working hour from here on out, he said.
“When I asked about when I was going to get my dog, I was told by my flight chief that the dog I would be assigned to was super independent and tough,” said Russell. “He likes to boss people around and wants to be in charge. They said it was going to be awhile.”
Russell said he knew from the moment he met Ppaul, his MWD, he was in for a challenge.
“He had a stigma about him,” said Russell. “He was aggressive and would bite you if you tried to correct him. He wasn’t very handler friendly when I first got him.”
After many bites, hours of training and hundreds of corrections, Ppaul began to show signs of growth. The bond was there and it was only a matter of time before it became unbreakable, he said. Russell knew there was only one more test before he knew he had the trust of Ppaul.
“I was told that he didn’t like to be picked up, “said Russell. “I promised myself never to do it because I was told he would bite your face if you tried. I don’t know why, but one day I thought to myself ‘I’m going to try it,’ so I picked him up. To my surprise, he had no reaction and responded very well. From that day, I knew we would make an amazing MWD team.”
Since that day, the working relationship between Russell and Ppaul has been so stellar it was noticed by Russell’s trainers and leadership team.
“I’ve been told a few different times that Ppaul and I work extremely well together and that we are a great fit,” said Russell. “There’s an unbelievable feeling that comes over me when I hear that. I just think back to the day when I was told he was going to be a hard dog to work with and knowing firsthand how much we have grown together — I feel lucky.”
Sadly, Russell is scheduled to leave for Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson this fall and will have to say goodbye to Ppaul. Russell is already dreading leaving Ppaul behind but he is doing his best to make sure his buddy won’t be without companionship.
“I don’t want him sitting in his kennel for days or weeks without anything to do,” said Russell. “That’s why I have been already asking my supervisors if we have a handler for him when I leave. I know he will be in good hands though. I’m just going to miss him a lot.”
Goodbyes are hard, but as Airmen, the mission comes first. If and when the day comes when Ppaul retires and Russell has the option to reunite with his best friend, Russell said there is no possible way he could ever turn down an opportunity to have Ppaul back in his life.