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My Guard Life: Dog Handler

SGT Ryan Cahill of the Connecticut National Guard on his bond with man’s best friend
Six Legs, One Mind: SGT Ryan Cahill and Santo’s rapport is the backbone of their mission success. Photo by Kim Jaeckel
Six Legs, One Mind: SGT Ryan Cahill and Santo’s rapport is the backbone of their mission success. Photo by Kim Jaeckel

With a bomb-sniffing dog named Santo at his side, Connecticut National Guard Sergeant Ryan Cahill of the 928th Military Police Detachment is on a lifesaving mission—made possible by his Guard training and the animal instincts of his canine companion. As members of the military working dog unit, each week they train together on odor detection, patrol maneuvers and obedience to ensure mission readiness. While some dogs in the 928th excel in drug sniffing, patrol explosives detective dogs like Santo are trained specifically in explosives tracking. Previous missions for members of the 928th—Santo’s comrades and predecessors—have included providing patrol and explosives detection at the Boston Marathon and providing the Secret Service with support for presidential missions. No matter what the mission, one thing's for sure—Cahill respects his K-9 partner.

On his love for the job: “I never in a million years thought I would get the satisfaction I get as a dog handler. You need to want to be a dog handler. During my board interview for the job, I was thinking, ‘They could tell me right now to take off my clothes and go run through the snowstorm, and I would do it. Whatever it takes.’ ”

Dangers of the job: “I work with a patrol explosives detection dog. [Recently], Santo responded on a vehicle at a gate where we were doing access control. At first, you’re nervous. Then all the training kicks in. You don’t really want to find anything. But at the same time, you do, because that could be somebody’s life you save.”

Chasing the scent: “It doesn’t matter what the people look like or what the vehicle looks like. Your dog doesn’t lie to you. If your dog is saying there is something there, there is something there, or there was.”

Lone wolves: “You have to be very independent. It’s not like normal military things where you’re sent out with a whole unit of 100-plus people. The majority of the time, [it’s] just you and your dog.”

A history with furry friends: “I had a chocolate lab named Terra growing up. I didn’t have the most support from my family. But this dog was always there for me. I loved this dog more than anything in the world. I started volunteering at dog shelters. I thought, ‘Someday, I want to do something with dogs.’ ”

I got your 6: “Santo makes me laugh. He always wants to have his eyes on me. I call them creepy eyes. He’ll be lying almost hidden away. But he’s looking at me out of the corner of his eye. The second I turn and look at him, he turns away like, ‘Oh! You caught me.’ ”

Building trust: “It’s recommended to stay with a dog as long as you can. The relationship, we call it rapport, with the dog, is extremely crucial to the performance of the team.”

Worth the wait: “[It’s] hard to put a price on the training. Ultimately, the untrained dogs are purchased for a couple thousand dollars, while the man-hours and training time put into them would be exponentially greater.”

The importance of resilience: “If you ever reach a point where you say, ‘My dog can do everything,’ and you stop training, you’re doing the wrong thing.”