While most people have affection for their four-legged pets, there’s a particularly special and unique bond that forms between a working dog and his handler– the result of intensive training, mission fulfillment and the intuition that develops between the two as a team.
That’s how it went for Andrew Hotinger and his K-9 partner, Cheddar.
He and the 12-year-old yellow lab spent more than two years searching airline cargo for explosives at Dulles International Airport as well as being deployed in support of law enforcement and dignitary protection before Laryngeal Paralysis– a disorder that can affect a dog’s ability to regulate temperature– sidelined Cheddar’s career.
The first month of retirement was rough on Cheddar (and Andrew). Andrew’s wife told him that when he left for work, Cheddar just sat and stared at the front door until he returned home.
And while they don’t commute to work together in Cheddar’s government-issued truck anymore or undergo all the rigorous training, utilization and certifications required for working K-9s and their handlers, Andrew will always hold Cheddar in the highest esteem and make sure his partner receives the best of care.
So last winter when he noticed that Cheddar’s gait was changing and that he seemed to have some tenderness in his hindquarters, he called his vet, Dr. Rachael Nuzzo at Animal Medical Center of Frederick County.
After several tests and follow-up visits, Dr. Nuzzo determined that Cheddar had torn the ACL in his right hind knee. What’s more, because of the disorder that prompted his retirement, Cheddar was not a good candidate for surgery.
When Andrew found out that Cheddar had blown his ACL, he was fearful that there would be no good option for his companion and former co-worker, but he wasn’t going to allow Cheddar to live out his senior years in pain; after all, Cheddar not only served his country in the tense years following 9/11, but also played a role in transforming Andrew’s career.
Andrew says working in the aviation industry is in his blood– his dad flew for United for 27 years, his brother flies for Delta– Andrew himself spent 15 years with the airlines at Dulles International Airport. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had a major impact on his career plans. A desire to help serve his country as well as uncertainty about the future of the industry led him to apply for a position with the Federal Government and eventually as an Explosives Detection Canine Handler. Though he’d never had any experience with animal training beyond his own dogs, Andrew recognized and pursued the opportunity.
Once accepted, he went to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas for training. There, he met Cheddar– a 2-and-a-half-year-old yellow lab who’d been provided to the K-9 program from Fort Sam Houston. The two spent 10 weeks training together– Andrew learning about how to handle and train working dogs. They represented the first class of graduates for the department’s K-9 program.
Returning to work at the airport was challenging at first. Because they were the first to graduate, they and their class of 12 Canine Teams had to start the program from the ground up, helping to develop procedures and policies as they worked.
And then there was the process of ensuring that Cheddar would acclimate in his new environment with the Hotinger’s two other dogs.
While Cheddar would be a take-home dog– he’d live with Andrew and his wife full time– he was not a pet. He stayed in a crate when Andrew was out of the house– Andrew’s family did not interact with him. Unlike the couple’s two boxers, Cheddar couldn’t have treats at home or play in the yard– that might interfere with his rigorous training. He could only receive his specific reward when he identified trained odor (during training)– that was his paycheck.
Cheddar and Andrew trained continually. “When you fix one thing, you sometimes break something else; But that is how you learn and advance as a team” Andrew said. He was always in the process of learning how Cheddar learned and developing as a team.
But Cheddar’s career in explosives detection was sidelined after only two and a half years. Andrew said one day in 2009 Cheddar suffered heat stroke on a day that was just 70 degrees, after only 10 minutes of light exercise. Cheddar was accurately, pre diagnosed by Dr. Kathy Hollengreen, then of Animal Medical Center of Frederick County, with Laryngeal Paralysis, a disorder that can make it difficult for a dog to cool itself through panting and worsens when the animal is exercising or in the heat. Cheddar was working harder to try to cool down than he was deriving benefit from the process. Surgery to correct the disorder leaves a dog susceptible to pneumonia and aspiration, and the condition itself makes canines less reliable on the job. Cheddar would have to retire.
Andrew eventually moved on to become a canine coordinator at the department’s headquarters– a position that only came about because of his work with Cheddar.
“Working Cheddar was the best job I ever had without a doubt, but working nationally with the program is a close second” Andrew said.
With surgery off the table for Cheddar’s torn ACL, Dr. Nuzzo mentioned that a brace might be an option for Cheddar, so Andrew started making phone calls.
He reached out to a former colleague, Jason Johnson, who started Project K9 Hero, an organization that provides assistance to handlers and their retired working dogs. Jason referred Andrew to Paws of Honor, a nonprofit created to help retired service dogs in the Washington, D.C. area with veterinary services and financial aid as available. It was from a vet there that Andrew learned about Animal Orthocare. He called the office right away.
“We were in a bad way for a couple of weeks until I found this support, and they gave us hope.”
Project K9 Hero, Paws of Honor and Animal Orthocare were extremely responsive– getting back to Andrew right away to help him find the right solution for Cheddar.
It took Andrew a few practice rounds to get a good cast of Cheddar’s leg from the take-home kit. When he stopped by the office to drop off his last attempt, he was surprised to learn that Derrick was already working on building a custom stifle brace off the first cast he’d sent in.
“When I put the brace on the first time, [Cheddar] was lying down. He was very cooperative and held his leg up so I could put the brace on,” Andrews said.
He had to tighten the brace up pretty snug, so it would fit, but Cheddar never chewed on it, never licked it. Since getting the brace in June, Cheddar has been slowly increasing the amount of time he wears it during the day– Derrick advised he wear it when he’s active, but that it should come off at night or if he’s lying around the house. Cheddar is adjusting his gait to the brace, but he walks well with it.
“It’s exceptionally well made,” Andrew said. “There are no sharp edges on it, it’s nicely padded on the inside, has a hinge in it that allows his knee to bend …
It’s an incredible product.”
Andrew is not only grateful for the brace, but also for all the people who made it possible for Cheddar to get it.
Representatives from Paws of Honor shared Andrew and Cheddar’s story with Derrick and the Animal Orthocare team, who agreed to reduce the price of the brace and Paws of Honor agreed to pay $500 toward the cost. Andrew only had to pay the balance.
Life for Cheddar has been a bit more relaxed in retirement.
He likes to play in the backyard, but now only goes on walks. Andrew even trains with him from time to time– because he knows Cheddar enjoys it, and so does he. Ever the working dog, Cheddar hired himself for a new position in home security.
“Cheddar has become very attuned to everything happening outside of the house,” Andrew said. “His high drive and dedication now serves to protect our home.”