By Joseph Robertia
Stepping into the Peninsula Athletic Club, gym members are greeted daily from behind the counter by the smiling face of a retired military veteran named Nick, and a few who get too close even get their faces licked.
“He really likes coming to work and greeting people,” said Becky Marino, the gym manager who, since February, has owned Nick, a large, fit, 8-year-old, black-and-tan German shepherd.
Marino’s canine companion wasn’t always an athletic club ambassador, though. Nick recently retired from serving his country for the past five years by using his nose to find explosives while working as a bomb-detecting dog for the Transportation Security Administration.
“Due to security issues they don’t tell you a lot, but they said the dogs indicate when they’ve had enough and Nick was showing signs he wasn’t interested anymore,” Marino said.
Nick was sent back to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where he was initially trained at the Department of Defense’s Military Working Dog School. There he used his still-sharp skills to help train up-and-coming pups to follow in his paw steps, but once done with that task he was ready for retirement.
“He was still young and healthy, so he was put up for adoption, as happens with many dogs there when done with the service,” Marino said.
Marino had learned of this program two years ago while watching a news story on the
parents of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty while working with a canine partner. His shepherd survived.
“That story on them trying to adopt that dog is what really started us on this,” Marino said. “My son, Matt Bullis, is in the National Guard, and it got me thinking about if that had been him. I would want to make sure the dog ended up somewhere good.”
In addition, her boyfriend, Mike Northcutt, served in the U.S. Coast Guard, the Army, and the Army National Guard, in a military career spanning from 1980 to 1992. His father had also worked with a shepherd as a military police officer in the post-World War II era.
“With Mike being a veteran, we wanted to help another vet, and this seemed like a good way,” Marino said.
Following a link from the news program’s website, they were directed to the Lackland Air
Force Base’s Military Working Dog page, and in 2010 they began the process of adopting one of the dogs.
“It was an extensive application with 11 pages of paperwork,” she said. “They want to make sure these dogs are going to good homes.”
Marino filed her way through the official procedures, but after months of formalities, and just as they were getting close to finalizing the adoption process, a family tragedy struck. Her 22-year-old daughter, Brittney, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Everything was put on hold with adopting a dog until she got well.
“We assumed we’d go to the bottom of the list, but we found out you have to completely redo the application process, so we had to start all over,” she said. “I didn’t let it stop me, though. I was very persistent.”
They re-filed in late 2011, and were able to get help from someone at the base who remembered them, and who helped expedite the procedure this time through.
“They sent us photos of 10 dogs available for adoption and we picked Nick because we just loved his smile,” Marino said.
Once approved it took another entire day to arrange all the transportation to get Nick to Alaska.
“The airport in Austin is the only one that will accept large crates like what we had to ship Nick in, so we flew into Austin, then drove to San Antonio and got him, then drove back and put him on a plane to Alaska,” Marino said.
Nick arrived in February 2012, still the peak of winter on the Kenai Peninsula and a much
different climate than he left in Texas, but Marino said he adapted to his new surroundings and new family well.
“He loved the snow, he couldn’t get enough rolling and playing in it,” she said.
Detection dogs are given a toy after a job is done, rather than being rewarded with food items as positive reinforcement for good work. Now a pet, though, Nick is given a variety of toys, which he has access to at his discretion. The human equivalent would be like retiring and getting the contents of a bank’s vault turned over to you.
“He gets to do all his favorite things now, which means playing with a lot of toys. He is so into them and knows how many there should be. He’ll do a daily inventory to make sure they’re all there,” Marino said.
While it was a lot of work to get Nick, Marino said the rewards of having him in her life have made it all worthwhile, and she would recommend it to others.
“It’s been such a cool experience to get a new dog,” she said. “But, also, Nick gave eight years to serving the U.S. and we appreciate that sacrifice, so this was a great way to help someone who helped their country.”
To learn more about how to adopt a retired military dog, visit the Lackland Air Force Base Working Dog School at www.lackland.af.mil/units/341stmwd/index.asp.