Valley, the Dog Who Trained Me – By Curtis Hendel

photo of Curtis Hendel and Valley
Courtesy photo of Curtis Hendel and Valley

“Sit. Good boy!”

I gave precise commands with a clear, strong, but not overpowering voice, exactly as the instructors taught. “Down. Oh, who’s a good boy?” I hoped my ‘praise voice’ hit the right notes and impressed the evaluators.  I joined the Air Force with one primary goal, and my tryout, if effective, might set me up for success. “Stay” was the challenging exercise; I had to move side to side while my partner remained in a perfect ‘Down’ position, not spilling a drop of water. Water? Oh, did I fail to mention that my partner was a repurposed olive drab dog food bucket filled to within inches of the top with water? As I worked to reach my goal, I didn’t care that he was a bucket. He was MY bucket, and he was going to be the most squared away bucket in this entire tryout!

During my senior year in high school, I signed up for the United States Air Force in September to secure a guaranteed security police/law enforcement job. I decided to be a cop in the Air Force and set my goals high: K9 or bust, period. The recruiter attempted to buffer my expectations. Another Air Force veteran told me that I would never make it. Even a couple of weeks into Law Enforcement School, warnings came that making K9 was a shot in the dark. I didn’t care if it seemed unattainable; I wanted it, and nothing could dissuade me from my goal.

I put everything I had into that tryout. My partner, a five-gallon pail, formerly held Medicated Stress Diet (MSD) dog food. Now he held my future. That bucket flawlessly performed the “stay” command, and I praised him like there was no tomorrow. I quickly had the most obedient bucket out of all of us.

When they posted the final candidates, I gratefully touched my name with my finger, confirming that my name resided on the list to attend Military Working Dog/Patrol Dog School after completing Law Enforcement training. Thrilled with this news, I knew exactly what my first dog would be. As a good-sized farm boy who grew up baling hay and shingling roofs, I envisioned, with my strong voice and bucket-handling skills, that I’d partner with the nastiest dog in the kennels.

K9 School included all four branches of service among their student and instructor ranks. Some, like myself, had come straight out of Basic and Law Enforcement/Military Police School. Others had years in the field, resulting in a different atmosphere. For example, instead of getting screamed at the first morning, as had been the template before, our senior instructor berated us for several minutes before saying, “I want to see smiles every morning; you are going to be K9!”

After several days of classroom training, the marvelous day arrived. During the early days of kennel care, where we fed and cleaned up after the dogs, numerous among our charges looked angry with the world: snarling and charging the chain link.  We all wondered how we were going to get our hands on our dogs when the day came. Would we spend extensive time talking through the kennel, or would our new partner let us get a choke chain on them?  We students attempted to mask our anxiety with increased bravado and tough talk.

When the magic day arrived, I was assigned a partner named Valley. My expectations of a burly,growling partner shattered.  Valley, a stunning 8-year-old German shepherd, weighed in at about 67 pounds and quickly proved herself a creampuff during our rapport walks.  Our bond grew as we strolled together, getting to know each other.  Valley’s tender heart caused her to greet me with ears laid back in complete submissiveness and unconditional love every day.

I quickly took to her and loved that little girl but remained puzzled about how she would help me become a real dog handler. I still had the “man versus beast” idea in my head, which is probably why my instructors assigned Valley to me – pure genius.

Valley completed almost all tasks proficiently and rarely required a correction. While other students needed to discipline their dogs quite often physically, I did not. I watched the others and could not understand what I was supposed to be learning; however, it didn’t take long until I made the connection.

One day, while doing controlled aggression, Valley and I struggled. That, of course, leads to frustration, and at some point, I overcorrected my dog. There was no physical component but enough of a voice correction to make her flinch away from me.  I struggled with her reaction to me and couldn’t understand how my strong response could cause her to react that way. Our experienced and intelligent instructors knew this was going to happen at some point. It was a life-long lesson and one that would never leave me to this day. So strong would be these teachings that they would influence my interactions with people as much as dogs.

My instructors set me up, I realized later in training.  Their expertise foretold that I could handle a dog that needed a powerful voice and a firm hand on the leash. In addition, their wisdom created an opportunity to teach me this lesson on overcorrecting early in my career, which would benefit me during my time on the leash.

Valley and I formed a great team, and she easily walked me through Patrol Dog School. She remains a great memory for me. When she would go on an attack run or break a perfect stand-off and come running back to me, her joy and exuberance at working with me shone through. It was easy to praise her enthusiastically when the look on her face was pure and honest.

And then, one day, it was over. I took Valley to her kennel for the final time and spent just a little extra time saying “goodbye.” Some of my most fantastic instructors trained at Patrol Dog School; they taught me a great deal. But, my most influential teacher ever would be a 67-pound female German shepherd, endlessly sweet and who aimed only to please her handler. She taught me patience and not to allow anger to enter into the discipline aspect of training. She also taught me that every dog was equally important in our program, and my job was to make my dogs great from that day forward.

Patrol Dog School was a whirlwind time with a steep learning curve and a bit more freedom after Basic Training and Law Enforcement (LE) School. These were, undoubtedly, some of the best times of my existence here on earth. We loved the laid-back atmosphere in K9 school.  Don’t get me wrong, this school was not slack in any way, shape, or form; but we were being welcomed into a family now, not just an occupation. Our trainers expected us to work at a high level of efficiency in dangerous conditions with attacking MWDs every day and, at the same time, have fun.

The lessons that Valley taught me were vital to my success as a Military Working Dog handler. When I got to the field, I worked with a couple of old dogs that took patience and a level head to train. At the same time, my long-term dog seemed much more puppy, at heart, than a beast. As I built him up, I always thought of that little girl, Valley, back at Lackland and smiled.

I love and appreciate what little Valley taught me so many years ago. I also will never forget her as one of my most outstanding teachers and most loved  K9 partners ever.  I wish I could have spoiled her a whole lot more!

Thank you, Valley! I hope you come to greet me when I cross over.