By Airman 1st Class Alaysia Berry, 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 22, 2018
MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- As a child, Staff Sgt. Steven Watkins remembers tagging along with his dad to St. Louis to fulfill his Air National Guard duty requirements.
Growing up, his grandfather raised hunting dogs, which peaked his interest and love for dogs.
Combining the memories was a natural next step for Watkins. After graduating high school, he joined the Air Force, deciding to work in Security Forces in hopes of becoming a dog handler.
For his first duty assignment, he was sent to the island of Guam.
After applying for his dream job, and after an additional year of waiting, he was notified he was accepted into the K9 program, and was also given a new base to start his journey - Mountain Home Air Force Base.
“Getting accepted into K-9 was definitely a turning point in my career,” Watkins said.
Typically new handlers receive older dogs who have been trained well in the past, so the handler can get the hang of the job.
This is why he was very surprised to receive Bob, a new dog who had never been trained before.
“I was shocked, they saw something in me that made them trust me to be with a brand new dog as a new handler,” said Watkins.
He put in extra time to ensure his leadership knew they made the right decision by trusting with him with so much responsibility.
When Watkins first got to the kennel he was told to bond with his dog, so they walked everywhere together. It worked for a while, but he knew he needed to do something else to bring that relationship closer.
“I’d take him out, and I’d brush him, as often as three to four times a day,” Watkins said. “He loved it, that’s how we got our bond.”
Watkins always arrived well before his shift, stayed late and came in on weekends to strengthen his bond with Bob.
Tech Sgt. Robert Wilson, 366th Security Forces NCO-in-charge of Security Forces training, was Watkins’s first K-9 trainer.
Before Watkins arrived to Mountain Home, Wilson said he heard nothing but good things about his work ethic, motivation and desire to excel.
“He challenged me,” said Watkins. “He frustrated me to no end, but I’m better because of it.”
“He could always be found training and pushing to better himself,” said Wilson. “His positive attitude is infectious and I couldn’t be more proud of all he has accomplished.”
Before deploying, the pair attending pre-deployment training, where they competed against many other dog teams across the Air Force, in a contest called Top Dog and won.
“Outperforming meant a lot to me, considering I was going against handlers who have trained multiple dogs and have had many years of experience,” Watkins said.
It took a lot of time and effort to get Bob to that point. Watkins has definitely learned some lessons in perseverance along the way.
“You must always be confident in your abilities,” Watkins said. “The amount of effort you put in is going to show. I never let people intimidate me. It’s not about how long you’ve done the job, it’s about how well you do it.”
While deployed with Bob, Watkins received word that he was going to have to give him up, and work with a dog named Onyx instead.
Watkins decided to take some time away from work after returning from his deployment to make the transition a little easier for the both of them.
“The problem was, Bob and I had such a strong bond, every time that he would see me, he would whine and cry to get to me,” Watkins said.
The distance acted as a wall between Watkins and Bob, but months later, that wall came crumbling down.
Due to medical issues Bob had, his doctor decided that it was best to medically retire him.
“I adopted him at four years old,” Watkins said with a smile.
He explained that it’s very rare to have the opportunity to adopt the first K-9 unit dog he trained.
Watkins now had a new dog to train, which came with a new set of challenges.
“With Onyx, training was about overcoming obstacles and issues, and realizing that I can fix things, and I had the tools to do so.” Watkins said.
The way to Bob’s heart was affection and grooming. He needed a new approach to get to Onyx’s heart.
Onyx was with his previous handler for three years and establishing a new bond was no easy task.
“It took a lot of obedience training,” Watkins said. “I saw his strengths, but I also knew he had certain problems, so I had to fix them.”
Watkins efforts in training Onyx paid off. They were tasked to deploy together, and went to Texas for pre-deployment training, where Watkins went on to win the Top Dog contest yet again, this time with Onyx.
While deployed, the duo was used as an example of how a dog team should operate. In addition, they spent time working with Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Navy Seals units.
Another big achievement with Onyx was being the first K-9 duo on the Emergency Services Team at Mountain Home AFB.
“Anything a SWAT team does, we do,” Watkins said. “I’m the only one that’s dog certified on the team. It was a big accomplishment for us.”
They’ve also supported secret service missions, to include supporting former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and Pope Francis.
These days Watkins is a trainer for handlers, and continues to work with Onyx.
“I’ve found out I really like to teach, and provide feedback.” Watkins said. “I always try to emphasize the importance of what we do.”
Watkins enjoys working with both Airmen and K-9’s and could see himself making a full career in the Air Force.
“I’d love to do 20 years in the military,” Watkins said. “I always tell people I’ll stay until they get rid of me.”
“He has an unlimited potential for greatness,” Wilson said. “His leadership and dedication inspires those around him to improve themselves at every opportunity.”