Forged by Adversity
As it was for his human counterparts, there would be grueling training to learn how to survive in the elements and, like human SEAL candidates, most dogs were broken by the stress and rejected from the program. If a dog panicked under fire or during a maneuver, it could mean death for both dog and partner. Manny had to be certain that Zip could handle any type of stressful environment.
Water. That would be the first test. They drove the short distance to the reservoir and Manny led Zip onto the waiting boat. The captain took it out a full half-mile off shore, until there was no land was in sight. Manny needed to gauge how well Zip could handle the stress of being thrown in the water with no land as a frame of reference. Would he panic and flail wildly towards Manny in order to be saved, or would he remain calm and trust in Manny’s commands to get them safely back to shore? Manny went over the side first—the water in Jim Chapman Lake was cold, as it always was in early spring. Then Chloe lowered Zip. He was equipped with a canine buoyancy vest, in case he panicked or became exhausted on the swim back to shore. The boat pulled away leaving Zip and Manny alone in the water. The moment was crucial. Manny had to know how Zip would react to the fact that their only dry platform was gone. Zip paddled in place as he watched the boat slip into the distance, and listened intently to the sound of the engines fading away. Then there was silence. Manny tread water slowly, remaining still to see how Zip would react to the water, the calmness, and the complete absence of reference points.
Zip looked at Manny and let out a whimper but made no move as if to panic. Manny let a full five minutes go by. Zip simply paddled in a circle as if trying to figure out which way to go. Finally, Manny gave a command and began swimming in the direction they had come from in the boat. Zip dutifully followed. He didn’t especially like the water. It got in his ears and nose, making it difficult to concentrate and maintain full awareness of his surroundings. However, he had grown to trust his handler and knew that Manny had never yet let harm come to him. Zip had no reason to believe he would today. As they swam together towards shore, Zip became more comfortable and assured they were going towards safety. He could smell the pines and crape myrtles—that meant land was near. Manny’s strong, rhythmic swimming strokes calmed him, too. He could handle the sea—he was going to be fine.
The air was his next test. Manny knew that these highly specialized animals had to get used to riding in all types of military vehicles, and that they particularly had to be comfortable with helicopters. Since the training facility was near an Army Reserve Center, Zip had already seen helicopters—lots of them. He even learned to recognize the different ones coming and going just by the sound of their rotors. But he had not yet ridden in one.
Manny also knew that exceptional dogs could handle almost every other aspect of their training, but if they washed out of the program it almost always had to do with the anxiety of flying. Even more than simply being comfortable with flying, Manny had to prepare Zip to jump out of aircraft.
They started by walking around the hangars and the tarmac. Zip sniffed around the helicopters at rest, picking up all the normal odors from fuel, hot metal, the occasional bit of fresh paint or putty—and of course the scent left behind by the people touching the choppers as they boarded or worked on the engines. Manny let him put his paws up on the low doorways and peer inside. More smells of canvas, leather, weapons, boots. Not so bad. It looked a little like the inside of Manny’s truck. The next time Manny took him to the airfield, they walked around a chopper with the engines and rotors engaged. The motor noises didn’t bother him so much. After all, they had worked on that a lot. But the whump, whump, whump and wind of the rotor wash took a little getting used to. Finally, the big day came and Manny boarded Zip onto the helicopter for a short ride, followed by another and another. Zip adapted slowly but not without a bit of angst. Flying would never be his favorite exercise.
Later, Manny fitted Zip with a special harness. Zip practiced being lifted up off the ground, just a few feet at a time. The sensation of feeling no grass or concrete or carpet under his paws, no weight on his legs, was disorienting at first. Zip didn’t get the point. And just when he started to get used to hanging there, Manny gave the harness a nudge and he began to gently swing, back and forth. This was completely alien to Zip and he couldn’t understand why Manny was making him flounder around in the air. Everything in his training so far had been in line with furthering the development of aspects of his own canine drives. The swimming and hunting, smelling out objects, fighting and playing—even all the endless commands—had meaning, either restraining him from or pushing him toward the pursuit of his own proclivities. But this experience, this bird stuff, this was entirely alien. Why was Manny pulling him off the ground, higher and higher, and then swinging him back and forth? Zip didn’t like it, and not only because it made him uncomfortable. It had no real purpose. But he accepted it.
Manny now felt that, after all his extensive efforts at adaptation, Zip was ready for the next step in his transformation towards becoming a highly disciplined asset with all the skills necessary for the U.S. Special Operations Forces. He fitted Zip in a new vest with buckles and hooks on it. It was time to suit up.
Zip rather liked it, and the slight clinking noise it made when he shook himself. He held himself as though he was proud of his new vest. But then Manny put things over his eyes. Zip hated the “doggles.” He could deal with the vests and paw covers and all the other stuff they strapped to him, but he could not stand to have anything covering his face and eyes. It took him a long time to get used to the glasses. In the end, he simply tolerated them, tugging them from his eyes with his paw at the first opportunity.
Finally, in the first minutes of daylight on what promised to be a very hot summer morning, the time for reckoning arrived. Dog, trainer, pilots, and attendants loaded into the helicopter and lifted from the ground. Zip’s stomach dropped and his ears began to hurt as they pulled higher into the air. Chopper rides were not like the harness training just feet or yards off the ground. He went up and up, further from the land, like when he was in the lake, only worse. The sides of the helicopter were open and Zip made sure to stay firmly planted in the middle of the cabin, as he had during his other rides. The air and the sound rushed together and there was so much wind, it took all the smell away. This was always when he felt the most helpless.
The helicopter had moved out above the forest and Zip could see the trees in the distance when Manny gave a command, “Zip, come!” But he was crouched by the edge of the door, dangerously close to falling out and way too close for an intelligent dog to do any “coming.” Zip didn’t budge. Then Manny repeated, in a sterner tone, “Zip, come!”
Torn by his drive for self-preservation and his near-automatic response to obey commands, Zip started to move forward, haltingly, with his tail tight between his legs and ears pasted to his head. His back was hunched and his movements were agonizingly slow. He would “come” alright, but he wasn’t going to be in any hurry to get there. As he inched closer, he felt Manny grab hold of the harness and clip him to two ropes hanging above him from the bulkhead. The helicopter slowed down and stayed in one place in the air. They had hovered before. But something didn’t feel right.
Suddenly, Manny acted in a way that that Zip just could not believe—he pushed him out over the edge of the doorway! The harness and rope jerked tight against his chest, and he didn’t fall. But he was just hanging there, suspended in the breeze, under the helicopter—alone! The sounds and the space were too much. Zip pawed frantically, desperate to make traction and somehow get back up to the helicopter. Why would Manny do this! Why was he out here all alone? Then the helicopter tilted slightly, transitioning to forward flight. Zip yelped and drove his legs as if galloping in mid-air. It was no use; he had no control over the situation. He was helpless and afraid, and he closed his eyes.
Then, he felt a presence and could smell Manny. Zip opened his eyes to see Manny hanging with him, right beside him. Zip lunged as Manny grabbed his harness and pulled him in tight to his body. They were still moving forward high above the trees, but Manny had a strong grip on him. Zip buried his head in Manny’s chest and, after a few moments, began to calm himself. They were together, dog and partner. He was safe.
There were more rides and more jumps. As time went on, Zip got more used to the exercise and even the idea of being suspended from a helicopter. He learned how to stay close to his trainers during those unsettling times, gaining confidence that the actions of his trainers would not intentionally put him in danger. It was the painstaking ritual of trust building that moved Zip over the goal line in his transformation from useful domesticated animal to a valuable team member of the United States Special Forces.
When Manny and Chloe were one hundred percent satisfied that Zip had learned the essentials that Special Forces required, Manny tattooed Zip’s unique military working dog identification number on the inside flesh of one ear. In the other, he tattooed the trident symbol of the U.S. Navy SEALs.