U.S. Army Cpl. Dustin Borchardt, a military working dog handler from Burlington, Wisconsin, has led a career that many K9 handlers can relate to; long work days with vigorous training, a mental awareness for their surroundings that never turns off, and of course, an unmatched dedication to their four-legged partners.
However, one thing stands out about Borchardt and his dog, Pearl: they have been together for over six years, a stretch he said is uncommon in his line of work. Most military working dogs are assigned to one base for most of their lives while handlers rotate from duty station to duty station, having to leave the dogs they bonded with behind and start the process all over again.
“We showed up to Fort Campbell at the same time,” said Borchardt. “I was absolutely terrified. She was less than a year old, jumping all over the place. I was fresh out of training, and I had no idea what I was doing.”
But Borchardt’s hesitancy soon faded, and so did Pearl’s hyper habits. They trained for a year and a half together, becoming proficient in explosives detection, bite techniques and force protection security. Borchardt and Pearl were soon on the same page and ready to get to work.
He said their first independent mission still sticks out in his mind. The pair was assigned to guard the Trump Tower in New York City for then president-elect Donald Trump, where they stayed in a hotel room together for three weeks.
From there, they served on multiple secret service missions before deploying to Afghanistan, attached to 1st Special Forces Group and 10th Special Forces Group.
“Pearl had 30 plus confirmed finds ranging from homemade to military grade explosives, and multiple unconfirmed,” said Borchardt, reflecting. “We were able to get everybody back home safe. We did our job and nobody got hurt.”
Borchardt credits Pearl with saving his life more than once on that deployment. He has since been assigned to the 100th Military Police Detachment based in Stuttgart, Germany, where Pearl was allowed to accompany him.
After years of high-profile, security-based missions and a combat deployment, the duo is now taking on a different type of mission: supporting Kosovo Force, Regional Command East, a NATO-led peacekeeping organization dedicated to the freedom of movement, safety and security of all people in Kosovo.
“We spend most of our time down at the gate searching vehicle traffic coming into Camp Bondsteel,” said Borchardt. “We go out with [explosive ordnance disposal units] and assist with route and [helicopter landing zone] clearances. If there’s a special event, before COVID-19, we’d be involved with searching the event and providing security.”
As Borchardt takes Pearl through their daily routine, he knows that their presence is important in more ways than just providing force protection. For many on base, seeing the German Shepherd and her human gives them peace of mind.
Plus, he said Pearl loves the attention from adoring passerby.
“Knowing there’s an explosive trained dog here helping keep everything safe is a big morale booster,” said Borchardt. “She’s definitely spoiled by the people on camp.”
After spending their mornings at the gate, Borchardt takes Pearl back to the kennel area, where they spend the rest of the afternoon conducting drills or running through the outdoor obedience course. Training every day keeps the dog’s mind sharp.
Over time, the two have adapted to each other in ways even Borchardt didn’t expect.
“We’ve gotten to the point when I just look at her and she knows what she needs to do,” said Borchardt. “I’ve picked up on her little mannerisms when she’s found something or when she’s excited. Flicks her ears, wags her tail.”
Being able to read your dog, understanding why they do certain things, strengthens the handler-K9 relationship and makes the job much easier, he said. If one spends any time around the two, their unique bond quickly becomes apparent.
If Borchardt taps his chest, Pearl gently leaps up to plant her two front paws on him for a quick embrace as he pets her ears. As they walk, she carefully matches his pace. At night, while the kennels are being renovated at Camp Bondsteel, Borchardt often wakes up to Pearl laying on his chest like she’s still that growing puppy he met six years ago.
All of these moments remind Borchardt that military working dogs are not just equipment – they are family, and each one has their own personality. As long as Pearl continues to work, he will too, he said. When she can’t work anymore, he has every intention of adopting her and helping her transition to the “couch potato life.”
“She’s the best dog in the world,” said Borchardt. “She’s got my back and I’ve got hers. It’s been a really amazing experience working with her, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”