A military dog’s best friend is an Airman

Staff Sgt. Charles Cornacchio talks about being a canine handler for the Air Force

There’s nothing like going to work with your best friend every day, said Staff Sgt. Charles Cornacchio, a canine handler for the Air Force. He works with one of the six dogs stationed on Hanscom Air Force Base – but can’t reveal the dog’s name due to protection and security reasons. The German shepherds and Belgian Malinois are used for narcotics and explosive detection and are highly trained by Cornacchio and the other dog handlers. Cornacchio spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene.

“The military working dogs first arrive at Hanscom when they are about a year and a half old. They arrive from top-of-the-line canine kennels, such as police agencies in Europe with kennel breeding lines. They’ve received only basic training – commands such as ‘sit’ and ‘lay down.’ Our job is to advance them into real-world deployment settings and take the dog to another level. They have certain odors they’ll be specialized to detect, either explosive or narcotic.”

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“There are seven of us here that work with the dog team and take full responsibility for these animals, not just training them but also bathing, grooming, weight checks, and even brushing their teeth. When they first get to the base, we build rapport with the dogs by sitting and talking with them and even reading them books so they get used to our voices. Toys and food rewards are used to unlock the behavior we are trying to target.”

“These dogs are like humans with their own personalities and characteristics – the length of training depends on each dog’s level of drive for reward or their ability to please. Play translates into life-saving techniques – grabbing a ball and dropping it turns into grabbing a suspect and letting go. We start with tug toys then go to training sleeves (thick padded sleeves over the arm that protect from a bite) then a bite suit. These dogs perform flawlessly in state-side or overseas missions. I’ve been to Afghanistan and Korea for secret service missions and these dogs go out and neutralize the suspect without lethal deployment. I look forward to the day when one of these dogs retire and I can take it home with me as a pet. When they’re done serving, they get to be part of a loving family and soak up living on a couch and get all the food and treats they can handle.”

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