MA2 Cristina Collesano
United States Navy Military Working Dog handler 2008-2010
Hometown: Troy, MI
DOG HANDLER EXPERIENCE:
- Commander Fleet Activities Sasebo, Japan (October 2006-October 2008) – Master at Arms and kennel support
- MWD school, Lackland AFB, TX (October 2008-January 2009) – handled MWD Zena (German Shepherd), MWD Benny (German Shepherd), MWD Rony (German Shepherd), and MWD Barry (Belgian Malinois). Favorite was MWD Rony.
- Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily (January 2009-January 2011) – handled MWD Allan (D185) (German Shepherd), MWD Kato (B322) (Labrador Retriever), and MWD Zizi (L401) (Belgian Malinois).
- Deployed in support of OIF/OEF to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait (June 2009-May 2010) with MWD Zizi (L401)
favorite dog: MWD Zizi
1. How/Why did you become a handler?
My parents moved to Sicily in May of 2005 as missionaries and I went with them. I was 19 at the time. My plan at that time was to enroll in and attend a Bible school in Rome, but I had been thinking about enlisting in the military since I was 17. I almost enlisted in the Army with an Intel MOS, but my mom wouldn’t sign the papers for me.
My father met an American whose wife was an MA and a dog handler on the nearby base, Sigonella. He introduced us, I went on base and met several of the handlers, and saw a demo with the MWDs and knew that was what I wanted to do. I enlisted that November and shipped out to boot camp in May 2006.
2. What was MWD school like for you?
MWD school was awesome. I had amazing classmates and instructors (MA1 Leach and TSgt Burnett). It was rough due to the weather; it would be freezing cold and possibly raining in the morning, so we would have our cold weather and rain gear on, but by noon, it would be in the 80s and we would be dying. It was tough work, but we made it fun. Our class was able to participate in over half a dozen demonstrations for various functions, including an Air Show where the Blue Angels performed and a visit to the school by a couple hundred WWII, Korea, and Vietnam war veterans.
3. Tell us about your favorite dog you handled…
MWD Zizi was my first “real” dog, as I had only handled MWD Allan and MWD Kato for a short period of time in Sigonella. I was her fourth, and last, handler. I was both excited and apprehensive about handling her because I was assigned to her only three weeks before we deployed to Kuwait, so we didn’t have a lot of time to build rapport and trust and certify before leaving. She was a very skittish and untrusting dog for a long time; she bit me three times in our first week together out of fear. When we went through pre-deployment training in Yuma, AZ, she was resistant to me, but I didn’t blame her, since she barely knew me, and we were going through very rigorous training in 130 degree temperatures in the desert.
After building a strong rapport, I discovered that she’s a very loyal, attentive, and goofy dog. All she wants is to be loved. She LOVES to play. She definitely has a unique personality. She was an extremely effective MWD; I believe the Navy suffered a loss when she was medically retired, because she was a fantastic attack dog and exceptionally proficient in detection.
4 .Describe the bond you had with Zizi and what it took to build it…
It took several months for us to feel like a real team. Training in Yuma was probably the most difficult time we went through as a team, as she didn’t trust me, and I hadn’t fully learned how she worked, all her little quirks, her stamina, etc. A few months into our deployment in Kuwait was when I really felt like we had bonded and we worked very well together from then on. Zizi requires no physical correction and very little verbal correction, so I had to adjust and tailor my corrections and responses to her behavior accordingly. She loves being rewarded with her toy and with physical and verbal praise. The bond just happened for us…there wasn’t an exact day or moment that it finally all came together, it just did.
5. What would be the highlight of your handling career/highlight with your favorite dog?
The highlight of my career was being able to adopt Zizi when I separated from active duty. She has Progressive Retinal Atrophy, a degenerative genetic condition that has made her slowly go blind, so she was medically retired around the time I got out of the Navy. She is thoroughly enjoying her retirement here with me in Michigan.
6. What was the toughest memories you had as a handler, if any?
There were rough days and nights working, very hot weather, very cold weather, floods, sandstorms, etc. The toughest part has always been and always will be hearing about a handler and/or their MWD dying during combat operations, or even due to an accident or medical condition, downrange.
7. What advice would you give to those wanting to become handlers or are brand new handlers?
Take the time to observe and learn. Do kennel support at your base if you want to be a handler so you can see what it’s really like and if you really want it. It’s a very tough job. People think we play with dogs all day; we don’t. We work long hours, nights, weekends, holidays, and are frequently sent to some of the most dangerous areas on Earth. Because MWDs are so effective and so good at what they do, they and their handlers are targets whenever they deploy to combat zones. You have to be willing to accept that and perform your job with that in mind.
8. What was the experience like deploying with your dog
We weren’t ready as a team when we left because we only had three weeks together before departing, but we meshed as a team a few months later. We went through three weeks of pre-deployment training at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona. Our time during traveling when we were together 24/7 definitely strengthened our bond, and our deployment also did, as we worked 12-hour shifts almost every day and were training constantly. The deployment was pretty low-key; lots of training and advancing ourselves as a dog team.
9. What was your routine? Kind of missions you commonly went on?
We were mostly tasked with force protection on base and at other bases in the AOR. We searched cars at the ECPs, conducted many Random Anti-Terrorism Measures, inspections, and searches. If there was ever a visiting dignitary, politician, or high-ranking official, we would sweep wherever they were going, whether it was on base or out in town. We also conducted sweeps of various areas out in town that were holding MWR functions, such as golf courses, hotels, or restaurants.
Most of our time was taken up with training. We were constantly advancing the dogs to higher levels of detection and aggression proficiency. Because Zizi’s Retinal Atrophy starting getting worse during our deployment, she wasn’t able to perform aggression work after a few months when it became too dangerous for her and the decoy, so I focused on her detection.
10. What are your favorite memories from the deployment(s)?
I was there with a great group of guys (I was the only female with 12 other male dog handlers for most of the deployment). I cooked and baked for them all the time, as the kennel had a kitchen and my family made sure to send me a lot of care packages. Thanksgiving and Christmas were a lot of fun, as was watching the Super Bowl at 6 in the morning. Most of my deployment was spent with MA2 Bohannon as my partner on night shift, and our conversations at 2 in the morning are cherished memories. I built lasting friendships on that deployment.
11. How was everyone else’s attitude toward your dog?
As far as I knew, everyone loved Zizi. When I went on R&R leave, she was very well taken care of and spoiled while I was gone. The kennel in Sigonella was sad to see her go when she was retired, but happy she was coming home with me.
12. How did it feel when completing your deployment as a dog team?
It felt great, but soon after we returned to Sigonella, Zizi was diagnosed with Progressive Retinal Atrophy, so she was no longer allowed to work, as the blindness was worsening, thus causing her to run into things, trip on things, and generally making it dangerous for her. I still took her out every day for exercise and to play, but I became more of a trainer for other dog teams and performed administrative work in the kennel, as I was preparing to separate from the Navy.
13. What are you up to now that you are out of the Navy?
I am working full time on my degree in Early Childhood Care and Education at American Military University (online). I work full time at a dog daycare and boarding facility here in Troy called Camp Bow Wow. Once my degree is complete I’ll be starting another degree program with Baker College here in Michigan this fall. The degree is the Interpreter Training Program (Associate’s), at the conclusion of which I’ll be a certified sign language interpreter. I hope to use both degrees and work with special needs children, with a focus on those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Once I become nationally certified which would happen after another 2 years of schooling (Bachelor’s), I may pursue working with wounded combat vets who have suffered hearing damage or loss, as there is a great demand for interpreters in that field and in many other capacities.
-Thank you Cristina for the great interview and photos! MA2 Cristina Collesano officially has K9 Pride!
If you are a professional handler (military, law enforcement, search and rescue, etc.) and would like to be profiled email firstname.lastname@example.org and put “PROFILE” in the subject line.
Below is a fantastic poem by Cristina Collesano:
So You Don’t Have To
I will sail the oceans deep
I will fly in heaven’s keep
Crawl in dirt and walk the streets
Where the enemy I’ll surely meet
I’ll stand watch in rain, snow, and hail
While my comrades chase the opponent’s trail
I’ll suffer in silence as the sun pounds
And listen intently for enemy rounds
I’ll not sleep for three days straight
For weariness will seal my fate
I’ll eat cold turkey on the Day of Thanks
And spend my Christmas next to sand-blown tanks
I’ll miss my friends, my mom, my dad
I’ll miss the moments we could have had
I missed my brother’s wedding day
The bitter taste will always stay
I’ll fight so you can shout “No war!”
Hold up your signs, knock on doors
I’ll fight even if you want me dead
Because freedom’s color will always be red
I’ll go so they won’t kill your son
Your daughter, your mother, your significant one
I’ll go one, two, or three more times
‘Til I’m utterly finished, I don’t mind
I’ll fight until my heart grows weary
From seeing friends die, my eyes are bleary
I will continue in their stead
Their faces forever in my head
And home triumphant, I won’t return
For hate and evil still will burn
You’ll ask me why I do what I do
I’ll reply, “It’s simple. So you don’t have to.”