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Real Life

Meet the only female dog handler in the New Zealand Defence Force

Dog handler Te Rena Naden (23) says she is doing it for the girls.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be in the military. Growing up, I was always surrounded by adventure and hard work.
I moved to New Zealand from Papua New Guinea when I was two years old and grew up in Gisborne with my father. I remember he’d do everything for himself, from chopping wood to catching and killing his own meat. I really admired his strength and determination, and I wanted to carry that on in my career.
So it was a dream come true when I joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 2011. My intention was to become a dog handler, but I started out in the Ground Defence speciality within the Air Force’s Force Protection trade.
I absolutely loved it because of its variety and spontaneity. You could be sitting at a computer answering emails and the next minute you could be on your way urgently, providing support and security for a tasking.
Another perk of my job is the travel. I’ve been to Fiji, Rarotonga and have recently just come back from a four-week trip to Darwin. In 2012, I got the opportunity to go to Singapore and Australia as part of the security for a royal tour.
Our team maintained the security of the aircraft that flew Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall around. I was only 19 at the time and was the youngest person on the tour, so it was a little intimidating, but I felt really privileged to be part of it.
I did find it slightly embarrassing getting tongue tied every time I crossed paths with Prince Charles, though!
I’ve always loved animals, so I knew dog-handling was the job for me.
In 2013, I started the three-month course and I’m now the only female dog handler in the New Zealand Defence Force.
I think it’d be great to see more women in this type of role, but I don’t think many people know about it. In fact, some people in the Air Force don’t even know we have dogs!
Our dog unit is used to ensure the security of the air base and aircraft or the units when they’re deployed.
One of the hardest parts of the job is dealing with death. You get so attached to the dogs that it’s hard to let them go. My first dog was a beautiful German shepherd called Isla. She had only been a working dog for three years but she had to retire and be put down due to hip dysplasia.
It can be tough, but the whole unit supports each other.
After Isla, I was paired with Chase. He has so much energy and life. Obviously, you have your good days and your bad days together because a dog isn’t a machine, it can’t be 100 per cent all the time.
I’ve been through a rollercoaster of emotions with Chase – I’ve been crazy angry and immensely happy to the point I’ve cried because I love him so much.
The training is quite intense and very repetitive. We train every day together to maintain Chase’s strengths. I do a lot of basics with him such as biting and looking at the quality of his bite. We train the dogs to bite on command but also to bite when they feel something is a threat.
We also do search training – if an object like a weapon is missing, you cast the dog out and they can track it down using the wind. They’re extremely clever animals.
Chase is very protective of me, especially around males. When my fiancé Jordan (26), who is a physical trainer in the army, met Chase for the first time, he was petrified but because Chase could feel how relaxed I was around Jordan, he accepted him straight away.
A couple of months ago, Chase was being really clingy and protective towards me – more than usual – and I just couldn’t pinpoint why. Then I found out I was pregnant.
It was like he could tell before I knew myself!
He’s definitely prepared me for motherhood. He’s like my baby – when I announced my pregnancy, I put up a picture of Chase saying, ‘I’m going to be a big brother.’
Going on maternity leave will be hard – I definitely won’t find the separation easy. I’ve been so emotional and I just cry all the time. The thought of Chase not being by my side every day is difficult. I just pray that I get him back when I return!
I’m excited for the future. I would love to study psychology and the behaviour of dogs to further my understanding.
I’m a leading aircraftwoman but one day I hope to be sergeant and coordinate the unit.
I’ve got a bit of competition, but I’m going to do it for the girls.”

Quick fire

In my spare time I like to…
I’m actually really boring! I think because I go away so much with my job, when I do have time at home, I just like to relax.
My dream is…
This sounds super-corny, but I just want to be happy.
I hope that I’m remembered for...
My partner would say my sassiness. But I think I’d love to be remembered for being a good mother.

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