Hummer is one of five 2022 AKC Awards for Canine Excellence recipients, winning the Uniformed Service K-9 category. This category recognizes certified therapy dogs working in hospitals, schools, disaster sites, war zones, and wherever else the affection of a good dog can provide comfort.
It isn’t one of those online dating sites, but Custom Canine Unlimited (CCU) in Gainesville, Georgia, sure has a way of pairing K-9 handlers and dogs. Case in point: Will Sessa and Hummer, a Belgian Malinois, in October 2014.
Sessa – now retired from the Forsyth County (Georgia) Sheriff’s Office – a unit trainer supervisor, and two other deputies, went to the facility to meet three dogs targeted to join their department.
“I don’t know how the staff at CCU did it, but they matched Hummer and me perfectly,” Sessa says. No doubt the staff nailed it – since the pair won the 2022 AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence in the Uniformed Service K-9 category.
After briefly getting to know Sessa and the two others, the CCU brought out dogs Bowi, Draco, and Hummer to meet their new potential partners. They spent almost four hours at CCU but the pairings were done in an hour, meaning if there was a glaring personality issue, things could have been resolved then and there.
But that wasn’t the case.
“We were paired and away we went with a lead in one hand and no idea what to do with the other,” Sessa recalls. “They sent us out to walk around in a field to get to know each other and it was history from there.”
Sessa and Hummer have piled up an impressive record since then, corralling criminals, finding missing persons and serving as ambassadors for the department with the general public. Sessa lavishes plenty of credit on his four-legged partner.
“He is the perfect working dog,” he says. “He has no reactive behavior toward dogs, humans, horses, etc. However, if we are working and the temperature in the room becomes warm, Hummer is on! He immediately shifts gears into a serious demeanor. His posture becomes rigid, ears are forward and up, chest goes up and out and you can tell he is ready for action.”
Where the two align best is the ability to turn “it” on and off like a light switch. “When it’s time to work, we put that hat on. As soon as the work is complete, we carry on as if it’s just another day,” Sessa says.
Turning on Like a Light Switch
Certification and the original training process was six weeks. During that span, the handlers observed how the dogs were trained to detect the odor of narcotics, worked Obedience, learned tracking behavior, and various aspects of apprehension challenges.
“Truth be told,” Sessa laughs, “the dogs knew more than we did in the beginning. For us, it was mostly learning to get out of their way along with reading their behavior to determine what they were doing and thinking. There was a lot of trial and error, some tears of joy, moments of panic, all followed by confidence and a sense of fulfillment like no other.”
For two years, Sessa and Hummer were just a couple of single “guys” hanging out. You might call it a tight, frisky camaraderie. In 2016, Sessa married his now-wife, Alex. He teases her often that Hummer will always be his first everything. “We lived together, went to work together, and we’re all each other needed,” he smiles.
But those days are history, and things have changed mightily. Team Sessa now includes Alex and their children, Caden and Ella, along with Daisy, their 12-year-old mixed breed.
From the intensity of working by day – whether it be in pursuit of a criminal or tracking lost parties (such as elderly individuals with Alzheimer’s, young children with dementia, or young adults with autism) – to managing Hummer’s demeanor in the home environment, doggy dynamics are always at play.
The Qualities of a Good K-9
Hummer is sound, stable, predictable, teachable, social, and loyal. It might not seem like much, but these traits make a world of a difference for an exceptional K-9. “If you have these traits, you can make a K-9 as much or as little as you want it to be,” Sessa says. “I never wanted a dog that I couldn’t trust to not bite someone for no reason.”
Continuing education is required of K-9 teams. Hummer was certified twice a year in Obedience, Tracking, and narcotics detection through CCU and the National Narcotics Detection Dog Association and apprehension bite work during his time on the force.
Sessa has many memories of Hummer’s “wow” moments. One of those came during an evening in early December 2020 when Hummer sniffed out a 22-year-old murder suspect hiding in a dumpster in Fowler Park in Cumming, Georgia, after an extensive search of the premises.
A short time earlier, the criminal had fled a vehicle, sending the tracking team in several directions.
“We started the pursuit off the passenger side of the car from where he ran directly to the rear into a nearby wood line. Hummer established the track and showed great behavior — changes with his nose to the ground, consistent tension on the tracking line, and his tail in the air,” Sessa recalls.
Soon they found themselves heading back toward the front of the park. Hummer tracked up a walkway toward the parking lot where another K-9 handler had placed his vehicle on a perimeter location, then he proceeded to zero in on the dumpster at an accelerated pace.
“This was the first big change in his behavior since starting the track and represented a proximity alert. Hummer circled around the dumpster and his head came up,” Sessa says. “I verbalized what I was feeling and seeing to the tracking team. We set on the dumpster and a team member slid open the side door and located the suspect laying in the bottom of the dumpster.”
Still a Team After Retirement
During their first few years together, Sessa and Hummer were on call 24/7 for a full week followed by a three- to four-week break while other teams did their rotation. Later, there were times when they were on call every other week.
Time, patience, commitment to learning, education, and being open-minded were all factors in their success as a team. “I learned from a various array of backgrounds, and took something from each of them,” Sessa says. “I was taught one way but learned not one way was always going to work for me and my dog.”
Sessa retired in January 2021 and fortunately was allowed to keep the now 8-year-old Hummer. If the dog had been 3 or 4 years old, with a huge investment having been made in his training, the department would have considered matching him with another K-9 handler.
However, the first four months after retirement presented a tapestry of challenges.
“It was terrible for both of us,” Sessa says. “When I left for work, Hummer would sulk. It was like a human going through a state of depression – denial, anger, stress, and resentment – until we reached an acceptance point. He was clearly confused the first couple of months, then became a bit destructive.”
Upon returning home each day, Sessa exercised him mentally and physically and occasionally took him to his old training grounds at the sheriff’s office. “He’s very happy now and has blossomed into the consummate family dog.”