Staff Sgt. Kyle Johnson remembers the day he had to say goodbye to his military working dog partner and best friend, Chickel, in Korea — possibly forever.
It was a tearful parting for both of them.
“It was Jan. 7 right before I left Osan Air Base, Korea,” Johnson said. “(Chickel) always stayed with me in the dorm, so I had to go put him back in the kennel. That was rough, really hard, because me and him stayed with each other every single day.
“Him looking at me and wondering why am I leaving him back in the kennel, that kind of sucked. I cried that day, and he was whining.”
Chickel was a military working dog with the United States Air Force at Osan Air Base, and that’s where he and Johnson, a military dog handler, met in February 2020, and worked together for 10 months.
The German shepherd became Johnson’s working partner. Chickel is a patrol-certified dog, and is trained to bite and hold a suspect and search for people using sight, sound and smell, Johnson said.
When Johnson was transferring back to the states to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in January, Chickel couldn’t come with him because the dog was still on active duty and had to remain in Korea to do his job.
But Johnson knew the 9-year-old canine was due to retire soon, so before he even left Korea, Johnson began the process of adopting Chickel and bringing him back to the states as a permanent part of his own family.
That reunion took place July 27 in Clinton, where American Humane, the organization responsible for getting Chickel back to the states, had put him and a veterinarian who accompanied him in an Airbnb for a few days for some relaxation, and even a spa day, after his long trip before meeting his new family.
Johnson said he was terrified about the reunion, thinking Chickel wasn’t going to recognize him because they had been apart for eight months.
“I thought he was going to look at me and go somewhere else, like ‘I don’t even know who you are,’ ” Johnson said.
“But as soon as I saw him and said his name, that was it. He bolted straight to me, put his paws around my neck. He thinks he’s a human, so he’s hugging me and licking me. It was a great experience to know that I meant as much to him as he meant to me.”
Johnson said he was relieved that Chickel was finally here, that he finally had his best friend back.
“It was just excitement and happiness,” he said.
Johnson’s wife, Allison, son, 9-year-old Emett, and almost 2-year-old Averi fell in love with Chickel during the reunion.
“They absolutely love him,” Johnson said. “My kids play with him, and I’m sure they terrorize him, but he loves it. They play with him constantly with his ball and other toys. They pet him constantly. They love Chickel.”
Chickel sleeps in the bedroom with Johnson and his wife.
“American Humane got him a very nice dog bed that he absolutely loves,” Johnson said. “He’s on the floor right next to me like he did back in Korea.”
Johnson said he frequently takes Chickel on walks and plays fetch with him like they did in Korea.
“When we sit on the couch relaxing for the day, he jumps up and just lays in my lap,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to know that he’s back home and he feels relaxed and is happy.”
Johnson gives American Humane all the credit for getting Chickel to the states.
“None of this would have been possible without them,” he said. “They covered everything financially. They really took care of him.”
American Humane’s mission is to ensure a healthy and happy retirement for military working dogs, said president and CEO Robin R. Ganzert.
“American Humane is incredibly proud of our work supporting the nation’s veterans, including four-legged military canines who play a crucial role in keeping their fellow troops safe,” she said.
“We are honored to reunite (Staff) Sgt. Kyle Johnson with Chickel, and hope this courageous canine enjoys a restful retirement.”
Chickel was a military working dog for eight years before he retired. He received a Meritorious Service Medal and has official discharge papers from the Air Force.
Johnson said when he first arrived in Korea and was assigned as Chickel’s handler, he butted heads with the dog.
“He’s a very loyal dog,” Johnson said. “Having him transition over to me being his new dad was a little rough for him. It took us about a month or two, but me and him really clicked.”
Johnson said he really likes Chickel’s goofy personality and his random spurts of energy that come out of nowhere.
The pair were each other’s protector at Osan Air Base.
“I protected him from what I could see going on,” Johnson said. “He protected me from things that were about to go on, things that I couldn’t see. He protected me on multiple occasions.”
Like the time they were at a club on base and a man that Johnson didn’t see came up behind him and shoved him. The man was still shoving Johnson when Chickel saw what was happening and lunged at the man to get him away from Johnson.
“He was a really big guy,” Johnson said. “But he was terrified of Chickel. So Chickel was protecting me and was able to get that individual from me. I felt like I could trust him with my life.”
Johnson said he 100% wanted to adopt Chickel.
“I chose him because I knew he was an amazing dog,” he said.
Johnson said military working dogs like Chickel have to be retrained to be civilian companions after coming out of the military.
“You pretty much have to teach them how to be a normal dog again and get out of that drive of working and let them know pretty much what civilian life is like, what it’s like to be a normal dog,” he said.
Chickel can now relax and enjoy his retirement with his new family.
Johnson said the German shepherd is still trying to figure out how to play again, but the neighbor’s German shepherd, Echo, is teaching him. Johnson said she and Chickel get along well together.
“I absolutely knew that one day Chickel and I would be together forever,” Johnson said. “Nothing was going to stop me from getting him.”