John and the Lumbering “Honza Bear”

KevinHanrahan |

“Why me,” thought Specialist John Nolan as he looked around at the other 11 students in his specialized search dog (SSD) class at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The other guys were looking at one another, smiling, laughing and joking. But John stared at the ground. He wished he could share their enthusiasm.

Everyone else was receiving two dogs and would get to choose their K9 partner but not him. He was getting the mine detector dog washout. He bit his bottom lip and shook his head.

“We’ve tried him before with four other SSD students and he never works out,” his instructors informed him.

This is not what the three-year-and-one-combat-deployment Army veteran had expected when he volunteered for K9 School. He felt like the instructors were setting him up for failure. He looked from side to side at the other dogs as he raked his finger over the cages while he walked through the kennels. They were all barking excitingly and twirling around in their kennels like tops. Why couldn’t he have one of the other guys “good” dogs to go with his washout, wondered John as he shuffled his feet down the kennel walkway.

“That’s him right there, Nolan. The big goofy labrador is yours.”

John sighed heavily and turned to face his new partner, the partner that he would be relying on to find improvised explosives before they found him.

He turned, with his hands on his hips and stared at the unimpressive yellow dog who barely acknowledged his presence. John looked up at his name plate above his kennel. It read “Honza, 4YO, male.” He looked down at Honza who was sprawled out on the ground at the rear of his kennel.

Honza let out a yawn, looked up at him and seemed to be saying, “I’ve been through this before with other handlers. I sabotaged them and I’ll do the same to you. Let’s get this over with so I can lounge around.”

John’s shoulders tensed as he reached for the kennel door and opened it. Honza got to his feet. John took a step forward into the cage, closing the gate behind him, and was quickly pushed backwards landing on his rear end with Honza on top off him. Honza’a massive front paws were on his chest and his wet slimy pink tongue was lathering John’s face with saliva. The 80-pound dog pushed him into the metal chain link fence and John struggled to regain his composure as bellowed deep belly laughs.

His family dogs—Ralph, a beagle, and Rosie, his Jack Russell terrier—never had the bulk to take him down like this when he was growing up. He’d been caught off guard by the lab.

John wrapped his arms around the dog, squeezing him and pulling him against his body tightly. He could feel the dog’s heart pounding and Honza groaned with delight as he tried to lick John’s face some more. It came back to John that he hadn’t had a dog since he joined the Army. He desperately missed the companionship and comfort his family dogs always provided.

“Don’t worry, this dog is only temporary, Nolan. We’ll get you a good dog,” a passing instructor said.

John looked up at the instructor and wondered what was wrong with Honza? He seemed like a good dog. He pushed his head against the short yellow fur on the dog’s head and peered into his brown eyes with a hint of a rust color to them. Honza’s tail hadn’t stopped wagging since John had entered the cage and it was now whacking the man’s leg and felt like he was being hit lightly by a leather belt.

“What is your problem, pal?”

Two days later he found out exactly what was wrong when they ran their first search drill. Honza took three times the amount of time to complete the exercise as the other dogs had. He was slow, lethargic, appearing to be out for a Sunday stroll rather than finding explosives. Honza had no sense of urgency.

John watched him curiously and thought that he looked like an unwieldy bear, poking around for snacks at a campsite. Paw this and paw that. He would sniff here and there, stroll to the left or right and sniff again, look at a passing butterfly and then take a few more steps with his nose down. His long yellow tail was wagging from side to side as if it were a windshield wiper on a rainy day. He was Honza the Bear!

“Don’t worry, Nolan. He’ll be your backup dog. We are giving you another dog tomorrow,” his instructor informed him.

John looked up at the staff sergeant instructor and wanted to ask, “What if I don’t want another dog?  What if I want Honza Bear to be my dog?” But he kept his mouth shut.

John had made a cardinal mistake at dog school. He had fallen in love instantly with the big goofy knucklehead lab. He couldn’t help it. Honza reminded him of his beagle Ralph, just larger.

Will John get to keep Honza as his dog?

What happens when John is given additional dogs to work with?

Can Honza finally be turned into an effective working dog?


Read Part 2

Read Part 3



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