‘I just love that dog,’ retirement reunites handler, military working dog

  • Published
  • By Alexandra Shea
  • 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Military working dog Zorro, assigned to the 78th Security Forces Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, recently reunited with his previous handler, Staff Sgt. Autumn Smith, following his retirement from active duty.

“I just love that dog,” Smith said. “Since day one, I said I don’t care how long he works, I don’t care where I’m at in the world, I don’t care if I’m on the other side of the planet, I want it in his records that he is mine.”

For six years, Zorro served as an explosives detection dog to include a deployment with Smith to the country of Jordan and 16 U.S. Secret Service missions. The deployment was a first for both Smith and Zorro. It was also the beginning of a series of first experiences for the pair.

“It’s cool to see my life come full circle. I was in such a different place when Zorro and I first came together,” Smith said. “I was single with no kids.”

Since the two began working together, Smith met and married her husband and started a family to include two children. While Zorro watched his handler reach life milestones, he began experiencing a variety of health issues, which led to five major surgeries, including the amputation of his tail.

“When I became pregnant with my son, I was placed on support staff,” Smith said. “Zorro began working with a new handler, but I was still there for him.”

Smith helped Zorro through recovery until she left military service and moved with her family to Rome, New York. The two would be separated for several months. During her absence, the squadron’s Kennel Master, Staff Sgt. David Zamudio, and Lead Trainer, Staff Sgt. Blake Krayenhagen, began Zorro’s retirement packet.

Once the approval process began, Smith was notified. She immediately began preparations to return to Georgia for his retirement ceremony and to bring Zorro to his forever home and family. Though plans were made, they didn’t go as smooth as Smith wanted.

“My flight ended up getting delayed by six and a half hours,” Smith said. “I choked up a little bit when I called to say I wasn’t going to be there.”

A dog handler drove to Atlanta to retrieve Smith from the airport and return to the base. Due to the flight delays and heavy Atlanta traffic, both missed the retirement ceremony. The retirement ceremony was held with squadron members, fellow handlers and senior leadership from the 78th Air Base Wing and 78th Mission Support Group.

“In 2000, congress introduced Robby’s Law. Until its passage, working dogs that could no longer provide service due to injury or age were euthanized, regardless of their temperament or loyal service,” said Maj. Chad Jessup, 78th SFS commander, during the ceremony. “Robby’s Law changed procedures to allow working dogs to be adopted by private citizens, provided the dog passed specific behavior assessments, which has afforded us the opportunity to be here today to celebrate Zorro.”

After reading Zorro’s distinguished list of his accomplishments - including training certifications, missions and deployments -  Zorro was presented with a final award and the folded U.S. flag that is customarily presented to retiring service members.

After the ceremony, Zorro posed for photos and received pets from attendees before returning to his kennel for the last time. Shortly after, Smith arrived and was reunited with her former work partner turned forever companion.

“As soon as I got to the kennels, he jumped on me and started his grunting,” Smith said. “It was like no time had passed.”

Smith and Zorro spent part of the evening napping before returning to Atlanta for an early morning flight to Zorro’s new home. After calling the airline to confirm ticketing, Smith learned the airline upgraded their coach fairs to first class because Zorro was a retired military working dog.

“He has adjusted very, very well now that we are home,” Smith said. “Zorro is excited my 2-year-old son plays ball with him. He is so sweet with my 7-month-old daughter. He goes up to her and licks her.”

A week after settling into his new retirement status, family and home, Zamudio reported that Zorro waits patiently by the door for Smith’s return from running errands. He has also found his favorite spot on the couch.

“Together you and I shall experience a bond only others like us will understand,” read Staff Sgt. Trinty King, 78th SFS dog handler. The excerpt taken from the working dog tribute poem Guardians of the Night.