Behind the ‘Dream Team,’ handler and K9 share unbreakable bond

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Allison Payne
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

A military working dog (MWD) handler is responsible for protecting and defending a base with their canine by their side. Becoming a handler is a tedious process which requires drive, dedication and hard work.

Senior Airman Jenna Canada, 51st Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler, exhibited each of those traits throughout her journey to become the MWD handler she is today. It was a dream she chased for years, only recently being able to make it into a reality about a year ago.

Prior to earning her title as an MWD handler, Canada spent approximately three years as a cop at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. According to the Air Force website, MWD handlers must spend a minimum of 18 months of service as a Security Forces specialist. In the meantime, she contributed much of her off duty hours volunteering at the kennels and building connections with the handlers, which she believes worked later to her advantage in her journey to becoming a one herself.

“It honestly didn’t feel real to me,” said Canada. “But the moment I walked across that stage, shook everyone’s hands and smiled for a picture with my certificate, I knew everything was about to change.”

Fast forward to November 2020, Canada showed up to Osan Air Base feeling eager, motivated and excited to get to work with her first military working dog, Gina. Unfortunately, Gina suffered a broken ankle, which lead to Canada balancing taking care of not only Gina, but also another MWD named Akim.

“I’ll admit,” said Canada, “I wasn’t really open to having another dog. I didn’t want to give up on my first one because of her broken ankle. It was a huge balancing act to manage two working dogs at once. Looking back, I think I came to him exactly when he needed me, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed him too.”

According to Canada, being an MWD handler is no easy task. She says it requires not only physical strength, but a great deal of mental strength and flexibility as well.

“These dogs are like babies,” said Canada. “They’re very time consuming and require a lot of attention, because anything could happen. You have to be ready to drop everything for them and make a lot of sacrifices for them at times. Of course, your fellow handlers will help you if needed, but your dog is primarily your responsibility. You always have to be ready for them and make sure they’re being taken care of.”

Canada recalled a specific instance where both her mental and physical toughness were required of her when Akim went into anaphylactic shock. She said they were going about their normal routine day when she noticed he had gotten a hold of a bee. Upon initial inspection, she thought Akim seemed to be fine. She checked him all over for any signs of medical concerns, but it seemed like he had shaken it off.

“I don’t know if it was a ‘mom’ feeling, but I could tell something just wasn’t right,” said Canada. “I checked his pupils and it was like the lights were on but no one was home. He was doing a thousand-yard stare and his entire back end went limp. I started shouting his name and banging on his chest, but he wasn’t blinking or responding at all. I scooped him up and ran to my trainer with him in my arms and in that moment, there was nothing that could slow me down from getting him in our car and to the vet. We had the lights and sirens on and everything.”

Luckily, Canada’s captain, whom she trusted wholeheartedly, was on shift at the time her and Akim arrived at the vet. She recognized something was wrong with Canada the moment she saw her face and quickly jumped to action to help.

“I literally saw the life leave his body,” said Canada. “We got him pumped full of Benadryl and calculated the amount of time Akim would have before crashing again, which was four and a half hours to the ‘T’. I stayed with him the whole time, ready to perform CPR or anything necessary to keep him alive. Once that time ran out, he started crashing again and my captain said we needed to get him to Camp Humphreys immediately.”

They were at Camp Humphreys for two days while Akim was treated and monitored. Canada stayed by his side the entire time, even sleeping in his kennel with him. It was eventually determined Akim had gone blind after his bee incident, so Canada was on 24-hour watch with him for a month.

“I was not sleeping,” said Canada. “I was so scared to close my eyes. There were several times throughout the night he would stop breathing and I’d have to smack his chest to wake him up and get him to breathe. That was a really difficult month for us both.”

Fortunately, Akim has since recovered from the event, and seems to have regained some of his vision. After Akim’s incident, Canada created medical kits for all the military working dogs, which included shots of Benadryl, to hopefully prevent such a thing from happening again. Canada said her mental and physical strength undoubtedly aided her throughout the entire ordeal.

“Akim did see the rainbow road for a moment and I think that stuck with him,” said Canada. “I think he knows he got a second chance at life and he is always so happy now. It makes me happy to see him so happy. We are deeply connected and even closer after the bee disaster. He helped me and I helped him. I call us the ‘dream team’.”

Canada said she believes everything happens for a reason, and every obstacle and road block along the way brought her right where she needed to be: with Akim. Their bond is now stronger than ever before, and Canada is currently in the process of adopting Akim, as he’s reached his retirement. He is expected to be home with her in the upcoming months.