Top dog

Fox Chase native Brad Antkowiak recently won the Iron Dawg competition in Texas for showing off the companionship he has with his military working dog, Baby.

Paw power: Brad Antkowiak, a 2012 graduate of Archbishop Ryan High School, now works as a military dog trainer. He and his German shepherd, Baby, recently won the Iron Dawg competition, hosted in Texas, as part of the Fifth Annual Christopher Diaz Memorial War Dawg Weekend. Photo: Brad Antkowiak

When Brad Antkowiak led Baby through the first round obstacle course in the Iron Dawg competition, he didn’t have a good feeling.

He had been training Baby for about a year when the competition took place in October, and had a good bond with the German Shepherd. Antkowiak is a military dog handler in Twentynine Palms, California, where he supports local law enforcement with Baby.

The 23-year-old Fox Chase native said he regained momentum as the Iron Dawg competition went on, scoring a key first place win against his 16 or 17 competitors in the endurance round.

“Near the end of the competition I thought I was in the run for first or second place,” he said.

He was correct. He and Baby emerged as the champions of the competition, hosted in El Paso, Texas, as part of the Fifth Annual Christopher Diaz Memorial War Dawg Weekend. The event is hosted in memory of Diaz, who was a Marine who gave his life to save another Marine when he was 27 in 2011.

Winning the competition had been an accumulation of the past few years for Antkowiak, who was the only Marine who participated in the competition. He graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School in 2012 and enlisted in the military January the next year. He recalled that his 19th birthday took place on one of his first days of boot camp.

“I’ve been home 70 days total in the last five years,” he said.

Antkowiak decided to pursue trying to become a military dog handler after being assigned to his current location in California.

“Dogs always interested me, and working with one seemed like a fulfilling job,” he said.

The process of becoming a military dog handler is a difficult one. Antkowiak described the process as going in front of a board to “sell yourself” on why you would make a good dog handler.

“The canine field is a very small group, and not everybody can get in — only the best and most elite,” he said.

Antkowiak was relieved to hear he had been selected, and traveled to San Antonio, Texas, in April 2016 to go through a rigorous three-month training school. He worked with dogs that had already been trained.

After completing the school, Antkowiak traveled back to California, where he began working with Baby when she was a puppy in October 2016.

Baby is a high-energy dog who sees herself as an alpha. Antkowiak said she gets along great with male dogs, but is aggressive around other female dogs. Baby sleeps on base at the kennel, so Antkowiak does not get to take her home at the end of the day. He said she jumps and spins around whenever she sees him in the morning.

Training dogs is broken into three stages; obedience, patrol and detection. Basic obedience is the necessary first step to establish respect from the dog and make sure they trust their handler.

Dogs learn many skills during the patrol stage. They learn to be around people, and whether or not to attack a suspicious individual. Antkowiak said the dog is always ready to come to its human’s defense.

“The dog is always keeping an eye on you,” he said. “If a bad guy attacks, the dog with or without command will attack.”

During the detection stage, dogs are taught to either sniff out explosives or narcotics. Dogs are taught to search in patterns, such as circling cars, or traveling systematically left to right, high to low in areas such as warehouses.

Antkowiak and Baby support the marshal’s office in Twentynine Palms, and perform tasks such as vehicle sweeping and anti-terrorism measures.

Before being assigned to California, he spent two years deployed in Japan helping local law enforcement there. He’s given 30 days of leave a year, but was not able to use them during his time in Japan due to expensive airfare to return home. Moving to Japan had been a culture shock due to language barriers and different custom courtesies, but Antkowiak was sure to take advantage of the food and travel opportunities while he was there.

His standard routine gave him two days of working followed by two days off. He would often work at an entry control point and dealt with people and crowds.

Antkowiak misses Philadelphia for his friends and family. His favorite activities were tailgating before an Eagles or 76ers game. He said life changed dramatically since he enlisted.

“I haven’t been in my friends’ lives, and it’s a pretty big sacrifice,” he said. “Some friends moved on, got jobs, or got married. It’s obviously not the same routine as when I was 18. A lot can change and a lot has.”

However, he is eager to visit home in November, and is excited to be reunited with his family — and cheesesteaks.

“My accent is made fun of all the time,” he said. “Everybody asks me where I’m from.”

Despite the sacrifices, Antkowiak said working in the military and with Baby has made his decision to enlist fulfilling.

“I am honored to do what I do, and if I could go back five years I would do the same thing again,” he said. ••