Men's Health “Ultimate Dog” Winner: Human Remains Detection, SAR, and Supporting Veterans
We originally called up Aaron Tucker for an interview after we saw his dog, Falco, wearing a pair of Rex Specs in an article from Men’s Health after they’d won the magazine’s “Ultimate Dog” contest. We’ve also been wanting to do a story for awhile now on an HRD (human remains detection) dog, and Falco and Aaron happen to be experts in that department, too. But it turns out these are just two small pieces from the pair’s list of incredible accomplishments and selfless efforts to help others.
Aaron and Falco in the Men's Health Magazine "Ultimate Dog" Article. PC: Amy Lombard
When we spoke, Aaron and Falco had just returned from Washington, DC, where they participated in “31 Miles for 31 Heroes,” a ruck that occurs during the night to honor the lives lost in what is considered the worst loss of life in a single incident in Afghanistan (30 active military members and 1 military K-9 were killed). During the 31-mile ruck, Aaron and other participants carried 2 bricks, one to represent the fallen soldiers and one to represent their families. Brian Bill was one of the fallen soldiers of the operation, and his father, Scott Bill, and Aaron participated in the ruck to honor Brian and K-9 Bart, both who were part of Seal Team Six.
“At the end of the 31 miles, they presented Falco with a Seal Team Six patch,” says Aaron. “He’s the only civilian K-9 to have that honor -- he gets to wear it on his harness.”
After completing the 31 Miles for 31 Heroes ruck. PC: @falcosjourney
Honoring fallen heroes and their families isn’t something Aaron and Falco do once or twice a year -- if you want to keep up with their busy schedule, check out their upcoming events by following them on Facebook and Instagram. On August 29th, they’re flying up to New York for their next challenge. They’ll be kayaking 22 miles from Bridgeport, Connecticut across the Long Island Sound to Port Jefferson, New York, to raise awareness for those suffering from PTSD and to help fund a new program that will support veterans and their families (Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk). And yes, Falco is the only K-9 participating -- so if you’re near the starting or ending zone for this challenge, be sure to go out and show your support. You can also donate to VIBS here, or consider donating directly to the Brian Bill Foundation here. The Brian Bill Foundation provides therapeutic programs for Special Operations Forces, active duty members, veterans, and their families.
So what propels Aaron to do so much for others? “When I was really little my mom bred German shepherds,” he says. “Then she passed away and life went to shit. As a kid, I was homeless and slept on a park bench at a church. I worked at a kennel, and I would scoop poop and all that stuff before going to school in the morning. I learned a lot and got to see how people treat their dogs differently -- dogs really do mirror their owners. Since then, I’ve always wanted to help those who couldn’t help themselves.” At 19, Aaron’s best friend convinced him to become a firefighter with him. Since then, Aaron’s gone on to become a certified firefighter, medic, and police officer.
Falco getting into the zone. PC: @falcosjourney
“I did 10 years as a tactical medic and helped create the tactical medic program here [central Florida],” Aaron explains. He’s also done loads of private work on the side to increase his knowledge, from training bomb dogs for Disney cruise lines to attending multiple police K-9 handler schools to decoy schools. He paid out of his own pocket, and he eventually became a certified homicide investigator. “I got really interested in HRD -- it’s so much more than turning a dog loose in the woods. It’s understanding the terrain, how deep to dig, knowing how the weather impacts the success.” Combining his background in detective work and understanding the criminal elements of homicides (common ways of hiding a victim, for instance) has helped him and Falco to be even more successful in their HRD work. “Falco’s at the point where he can find a Q-tip of blood in about 5 acres,” Aaron says. “That’s a lot of working hard as a team -- knowing where and how to put him in. If it was 90 degrees out, he wouldn’t find the blood because the scent cone is going straight up.” That’s one of the things Aaron loves about HRD -- it’s hard. Oftentimes with narcotics or bomb detection, “we can control the environment so the air sits still, but in HRD not only is the body decomposing so odor gets to be less and less, but there’s also no control over the environment.” At an estimated 6-years-old, Falco can detect remains from blood or bone scents, above and under the ground (and even through concrete).
Falco out on the scent. PC: @falcosjourney
The pair also do search and rescue for missing people, all volunteer of course. To support his costs, Aaron opened up his own dog training business, Florida K9 Unleashed. Since then, it’s taken off and is a full-fledged business. “I don’t want to teach your dog to sit,” he says. “My philosophy is to work with people who want to get out and experience life with their dogs. It’s helped me reach out to veterans and others and give them a permanent companion they can get out and see the world with. Some of the people I’ve worked with haven’t left their house in 2 years.” While Aaron works a lot with veterans, he also works with families and individuals to build a stronger bond with their dog -- what he considers the most critical difference between having the companion of a lifetime or a difficult, unwieldy dog.
Falco’s story is equally as inspiring as Aaron’s. About four years ago, a guy approached Aaron wanting to open a K-9 business with him and offered Aaron a dog. When Aaron showed up, he found a series of kennels that were more like walk-in closets with no daylight and where the dogs ate, urinated, and defecated inside. “I took Falco out of his kennel, and he looked horrible. I just said, ‘How much for this dog?’” Aaron paid and left with Falco, who was covered in feces and urine, and he was all matted and had chewed off pieces of his tail. Within two weeks, the humane society came in and seized all of the remaining dogs in the facility, and the guy was fined and ultimately left the state of Florida. For Aaron, he got the dog of his dreams. “When I met him, I loved his drive and intensity. But through training is where we bonded the most -- we’re inseparable. I don’t go anywhere besides the gym without him.”
Within two months of being together, the two had passed the NNDDA (National Narcotic Dog Detector Association) certification with flying colors. From there, “I blended a little bit between tracking and narcotics -- I let his hunt drive take over. I believe in learning from as many different disciplines and people as you can and make your own way. If you come across a problem with your dog, you need a lot of tools in your toolbox.”
Aaron isn’t the kind of guy who listens when somebody tells him he can’t do something. “I tell everybody -- if you enjoy doing it, what does it matter if someone tells you no? You only get one life. If you want to be a K-9 handler, find your path and find your way.” So if you’re interested in getting into search and rescue or human remains detection, Aaron has lots of helpful tips on how to get started. He suggests making friends with people who are already working in the field you’re interested in. “Ask for help on selecting a good dog,” he says. “Get with a solid trainer that can help you select a dog that has the proper amount of drive, that meshes with you, that wants to work for you. Dogs are just like us -- they may not want to do the work. They may start off working for food, but that might disappear. But if you have that really strong bond and the dog wants to work for you, they won’t quit. The love for their handler just doesn’t fade.”
Aaron also suggests you reach out to local task forces. Some are open to civilians and some are only open to active firefighters, EMT’s, and police officers, but they’ll be able to point you in the right direction either way. He also says to talk to your local police. “A lot of K-9 handlers are super friendly,” he says. “They may say you can come out and do tracking work with them.”
As to Falco’s Rex Specs in the Men’s Health article, we did finally remember to ask Aaron how he found us. “I’m a gear junkie, so if it’s out there I own it,” he laughs. “I like to stay up on everything because I have clients who’s dogs sometimes have special needs.” But he says he originally found Rex Specs after he and Falco had been out doing HRD work in heavy brush. “I started worrying about his eyes -- he doesn’t care, he’ll run through briars like it’s nobody’s business. But I thinking, ‘That’s all I need is for something to grab his eye.’ We also did some helicopter stuff where I was worried about dust and rocks. I saw a picture of the coast guard dogs wearing Rex Specs and thought, ‘That’s perfect!’”
We’re beyond stoked to have Aaron and members of the US Coast Guard supporting our product. But what really makes us want to keep improving Rex Specs is the inspiration we get from teams like Aaron and Falco. We’re so lucky to have had the opportunity to learn about their journey together, and we hope we can help bring a little more support and awareness to the work of the organizations Aaron and Falco are out helping every day. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit the Brian Bill Foundation to learn more about how they’re helping families, active duty members, and veterans of Special Ops forces receive counseling and other therapeutic services that are so critical in healing the invisible wounds of war.
Falco giving Aaron a daily dose of love. PC: Aaron Tucker