Learning about people from my MWDs

Staff Sgt. Luis Veliz, 39th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler

Staff Sgt. Luis Veliz, 39th Security Forces Squadron military working dog handler

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- I am a Noncommissioned officer  and a military working dog handler at Incirlik, Air Base, Turkey. Working in a K-9 unit has served me well, and has presented a plethora of opportunities to understand how the skills I learn working with dogs translates into how humans interact with their environment.

Now I know, to those who don't understand the career field, it may seem like a farfetched concept. However, in the four years I have been a MWD handler; it has taught me many things that apply in both my professional and personal life.

I joined the Air Force in 2008 and, with guidance from my supervisor, was granted the opportunity to become a MWD handler as an airman first class in 2011. In my short tenure, I have been blessed to work with eight different partners, wingmen if you will, all who have had different personalities.

The relationships I have built with MWDs transcends the job and is something that continues to have a resounding impact on how I conduct myself as a person. Now you may be asking, 'How would being a dog handler have that type of impact? What makes it unique?' Well, as I mentioned earlier, there are many different dogs, with many different personalities and it forces you to think outside the box to get them to work. In today's Air Force, we have a myriad of different cultures and personalities that are within our work centers. Find common ground with everyone and work from there. What makes K-9 unique is that we conduct ourselves under B.F. Skinner's theory of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is a behaviorist theory  based on the idea that behaviors that are reinforced will continue, while behaviors that are punished will eventually discontinue.

How can that apply to Airmen? Well think about it this way, as an NCO who supervises, it goes without saying  the fundamental rule is to get to know your people. When you accomplish that it becomes easier to help teach, guide and mentor along the way. In K-9, we use toys for our dogs to help motivate them for the task at hand and as contingent rewards when they have done a good job. Transfer that knowledge to Airmen.

First recognize what rewards they like such as quarterly awards, more responsibility,  a kind gesture or even an earned day off.  Tell them they are doing a great job and are valued in the workplace. Simple things can go a long way in motivating Airmen.
If you continue to reinforce good behavior then in contrast it is likely that behavior will continue to carry on.

Unfortunately enough, not everyone is created equal and there will always be 'bad apples' out there. It is up to us as NCOs and Senior NCOs to provide disciplinary actions if necessary and, most importantly, guide Airmen back on the right track. Everyone will make mistakes in their career however, if you abstain from rewarding negative behavior it is likely that behavior will diminish over time. One thing for sure is  we must hold true to ourselves as the front line supervisors. Correct discrepancies and help reinvigorate and reintegrate Airmen back on the right path.

When we teach our dogs something new it sometimes becomes a daunting, exciting and, most of all, an arduous task. It can take an exuberant amount of time to accomplish. I like to think of this as developing Airmen who come out of technical school to their very first base. We take the very basic skills they have learned, the foundation, and help develop them over time. The same thing could be said about Airmen later on in their respective careers. It doesn't come easy and takes a long time to see their progress come into fruition. In the teaching phase with our dogs we are taught to create an encouraging environment that assists with learning. If you were placed in a destructive environment with no guidance, constantly getting yelled at -- would you or anyone learn? With Airmen, when we create a positive environment, it helps induce the learning processes of their mind so that they can understand and contribute to the mission.

Lastly, I would like to say that when you understand the behaviors of people, it becomes easier. It is hard work, and of course a challenge, to mold and help develop others. Life is hard, however, when we know our people, we help mitigate the stressors of life and provide the comfort they need.

After all, aren't we all here to serve a greater purpose and help motivate, develop and inspire with our actions and words.