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Canine connection

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | May 3, 2020 1:40 AM

Four-legged friend from Iraq makes way back to its partner

COEUR d’ALENE — It was April 22 when the hatch of the maroon SUV opened in St. Regis, Mont.

Out bounded a stocky chocolate lab, and it charged straight to the man standing there. It knew him.

The delighted dog, tail wagging in rapid fire, leaped and hugged the man. It was home. It was back with the man it had worked and lived with, 24/7, for two years in Iraq, protecting the U.S. Embassy.

“She was super excited,” said John Huss, the man lapping up all that canine affection.

He was equally happy.

“I love it. She’s a great addition to the family.”

For those years, Huss and Isma were pretty much inseparable.

They worked together.

They lived together.

Their lives depended on each other.

They were an EDD — explosive detection dog team.

John worked for a private security contracting company, and Isma, a chocolate labrador, was his bomb detection dog.

Their job was to make sure there were no traces of anything that could be explosives in the vehicles passing their checkpoint.

The two met at the company’s Virginia training center. John was her only handler, and they formed a solid unit. They were one of about 120 EDDs safeguarding the Embassy.

Isma, about 18 months old, circled and sniffed each vehicle.

“They can smell right through everything,” Huss said. “She was very good, very good. She did her job.”

Depending on the time of their duties and their checkpoint — outside the embassy or on embassy grounds, the airport, helipads, the embassy gate — they searched from 250 to 500 cars a week.

“It was busy,” he said.

Most vehicles were bomb-free. But Huss said, “You come across stuff every now and then.”

He could not provide details for security purposes. But, he added, there was an incident that left Isma shaken, so they were moved to the night shift on the embassy grounds, a much slower pace.

“We went from searching hundreds a week to searching seven cars a week,” he said.

Each night, when work was done, they went to their home on the embassy grounds.

The only times they were apart was then John was in the cafeteria, the gym or the bathroom.

Isma was loyal to John.

“She stayed by me,” he said.

For the most part, she was calm — unless she alerted to something or someone.

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“When it was just me and her and there was something she didn’t like, she would get vocal,” he said.

Generally, Huss worked about 100 days and would return to his family in Coeur d’Alene for about 30.

In December, though, Huss headed home to North Idaho for good. Being away from his wife, son and daughter for long stretches was hard on the family.

But he couldn’t take Isma with him, as she belonged to the private security company.

Huss, who previously worked as part of K9 units with law enforcement in Arizona, was well aware that was how things worked.

“She’s the company’s dog, not my dog,” he said. “That’s the business. They were keeping her.”

So he dutifully bid Isma good-bye, believing he would never see her again.

But then, about four months ago, came an email from his former employer.

It had one question: Did he want to adopt the dog he worked with in Iraq?

Absolutely.

“Heck yeah, I wanted my dog,” he said.

There were only two concerns. One, they had already adopted another chocolate lab, Keva; and two, the bigger issue, Isma was back in Virginia, having also left Iraq and making the nearly 24-hour flight back to the states. She had been waiting to see if she would be sent back out for duty. She wasn’t.

So Huss had to figure out the best way for her to make the 2,500-mile trek to Coeur d’Alene. He didn’t have time to drive 5,000 miles round-trip, and airfare would be expensive.

That’s where Alone2Home, a nonprofit that relies on volunteers across the country to reunite dogs and owners, stepped in.

Connecting Huss and Isma took nearly five days and 27 teams of drivers, each delivering Isma to the next, to complete the long-distance dog run.

The Huss family met the final driver in St. Regis.

She quickly won the hearts of John’s wife, BreAnne, daughter Briley and son Evan.

“She’s great with the kids,” he said. “You can tell she’s still a little amped, gets worked up, has her moments, but it’s great to have her back.”

Isma’s bomb detection days are over. Now, she and Keva are good friends and act as watchdogs over the Huss family and home.

Well, they’re not the greatest watchdogs.

They prefer to lounge around the house, go for walks or rides, play in the backyard or monitor the street and passersby from the front porch.

“She’s a lazy civilian now,” John said, smiling. “She sits around, eats and sleeps and plays.”

Now that’s a dog’s life.

Well deserved.