American Forces Press Service
SAN ANTONIO, Feb. 6, 2012 – Navy veteran Hector Hernandez leans down to hug his dog as she pants noisily from her most recent dash around the living room. She nuzzles into his hand -- a momentary calm in the storm of activity that’s Bella.
“She’s a good girl,” Hernandez said affectionately as he throws the ball she’s already fetched several times from across the room. But this time, she bounds to his wife and two daughters, pausing to lick each member of her new family.
Although they already have a dog and weren’t looking for another, the Hernandez family took Bella in about three months ago -- not out of a sense of obligation because she needed a home, but due to a deep desire to serve.
Like Hernandez, who retired from the Navy, Bella is destined for a lifetime of service. She is one of several future military working dogs placed with foster families across town. These families, all volunteers, raise these dogs for about five months before returning them for an intensive training program at the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog Breeding Program at Lackland Air Force Base here.
This program, administered by the 341st Training Squadron, breeds, trains and raises Belgian Malinois to serve alongside other military working dogs, a select group used by DOD and other government agencies for patrol, drug and explosive detection, and in specialized missions both stateside and overseas, explained Bernadine Green, the program’s deputy director.
The program solely breeds Belgian Malinois, since that breed tends to make outstanding working dogs, able to carry out a mission equally well on an installation or in a combat zone, she said.
Puppies spend their first months of life in the breeding center, where experts begin assessing them for signs of future promise. The puppies that show potential are placed with foster families -- a mix of active duty, veterans and community members -- starting at about 8 weeks old.
“Families love to do it,” Green said. “It’s their way of giving back to the community and the military, and also for the sheer pleasure of caring for a puppy.”
Hernandez, a training instructor for Naval Technical Training Center Lackland, said a sense of service was the driving force behind his decision to take in Bella. After he arrived at work one day, he saw the puppies walking outside and asked one of the trainers about the program. After a facility tour, he was hooked.
He’d been searching for a way to serve since he retired in January 2011, he said. “I miss the military,” he said. “I feel like I have a lot of good fight in me. I want to serve further.”
He came home that night and told his wife and daughters that he wanted to take in a future working dog. The family already had a full plate. Hernandez and his wife, Anita, are full-time students, caregivers of Herndandez’ mother, and also homeschool their two daughters, 17-year-old Tiffany and 10-year-old Brianna. Plus, they already have a dog, Rosie.
At first, Anita said she was taken aback. “I thought, ‘Really, another dog?’ But then I wanted to see what the breed looked like. I had to let it sink in. But the minute I saw her, I fell in love with her.”
Hernandez brought Bella home Sept. 1. While they’ll admit to a few rough spots, mainly between Bella and Rosie, who is used to being top dog in the house -- it’s been smooth sailing since.
The family has trained her to sit and fetch, and helps to develop skills that will serve her well in her military future. They’ll have her bite on a rag, Hernandez explained, which will later progress to bite training at school.
The family also ensures her well-being, keeping an eye on her eating, exercise and health. This day, the family entered crisis mode when they noticed Bella was bleeding slightly, but otherwise was fine. They did a brief examination and determined she had lost a baby tooth. “What a relief,” Hernandez said, holding the tooth in his hand.
To foster her social skills, Hernandez takes her with him everywhere he goes, whether it’s to run, to work or to meet with other foster families on base for “play dates” with other dogs, many of which are Bella’s littermates.
Hernandez is right on track, Green said, noting the importance of exposing the dogs to a variety of environments.
The foster phase serves several purposes, she explained. By living in a home, versus an austere kennel, foster families “broaden the puppy’s horizon.”
“This phase is probably the most integral part of the program,” Green added. “Without these foster parents raising puppies, … we don’t get well-rounded dogs.”
The families are offered help in basic puppy rearing and instructed on basic obedience. However, the biggest challenge for foster families isn’t the puppy care, Green noted, it’s when the time comes to return their now-beloved dog.
“We have a lady who fostered 13 puppies and one of the brood bitches,” she recalled. Each time she returns a puppy, “she cries a blue streak.”
Upon her return to the breeding program in about a month, Bella will move on to puppy training, which will last until she’s about a year old. At that time, if she’s up to the task, she’ll progress to the 341st Training Squadron’s Military Working Dog Training Program here, which is about 120 days and teaches the dogs how to patrol and detect drugs and bombs worldwide. As with her classmates, Bella will be assigned to a military unit stateside or overseas, where she’ll carry out patrol and detection missions.
While DOD dogs become part of the military working dog population scattered across the services, they always can be distinguished by their names. All DOD dogs have a double letter at the start of their names -- for example, Bella’s birth name is Bbella, Green said.
Hernandez said he hopes he can track her career and catch up with her someday when her career winds down.
“If they retired her at Lackland, I would be elated to adopt her,” he said, smiling at Bella, who finally had tired out and was sitting by his feet.
Meanwhile, Hernandez is determined to enjoy the brief time he has left with Bella. While he’ll be sad to see her go, Hernandez said, the thought of her future mission eases his pain.
“It’s going to be tough on the family, but she’s going to go do a job, and it’s a very important job, and I’m contributing,” he said.
Hernandez’ 10-year-old daughter, Brianna, echoed her father’s pride. “I feel like I’m helping the military because I’m fostering their dog and they’re going to be … keeping America safe,” she said. “I feel like they’re blessings [and] should be treated with a lot of respect.”
Tiffany sat quietly as her sister spoke. She later noted her concern about Bella’s welfare. “I don’t want her to get hurt,” she said, staring affectionately at Bella.
Hernandez said he’d like to take in another dog since the program has an ongoing need for foster families, but will have to give it some time after he returns Bella. “A heartache needs healing,” he said.