Army Specialist Michael Steponovich and his military dog “Popeye” were inseparable while serving together in South Korea. However, when Steponovich left the military in January 2021 and returned to the United States, his canine companion was left behind.
Upon learning that Popeye was experiencing separation anxiety, Steponovich was eager to be reunited with the dog he worked with so closely. After learning that he could adopt him with the help of American Humane, a non-profit that works to reunite military working dogs with their former handlers upon retirement, he jumped on the opportunity to see Popeye again.
After four months of separation, Steponovich’s wish came true. The veteran pair was finally reunited in Las Vegas on May 21.
Steponovich was delighted to see the dog again.
“I couldn’t stop smiling,” he said in an interview after the reunion. “It’s only been a few months for us, which is lucky, but it feels like it was a very long time.”
The pair will now live together in Las Vegas, and Steponovich is thrilled to have the dog back in his day-to-day life.
Working side by side
Popeye was trained in explosives detection and patrol duties. During his 18 months with Spc. Steponovich, the pair put in 2,000 hours doing patrol work. When they were not on duty, he stayed by his handler’s side instead of in the kennel.
When it came time for the pair to say goodbye in South Korea, Steponovich was emotional. He had already parted with another dog in the past and never saw him again.
“You never know when it’s going to be the last time you’re going to see your dog,” he said.
He was aware that when he left South Korea, it could mean a forever goodbye to the animal he worked alongside for a year and a half.
While Steponovich was back in the United States, working and furthering his education, Popeye did not do well. He chewed his own tail until it was at risk of infection, a telltale sign of clinical separation anxiety in dogs. The German Shepherd was retired at the age of seven, due to the anxiety and a pinched nerve in his back. This is considered early for working dogs.
Now that the pair are back together, Popeye will be able to stay by Steponovich’s side just as he did during his time served.
“I’m so excited to just show him the area and take him on my adventures,” he said. “I’m excited to share that with him.”
Steponovich enjoys working with dogs and wants to be a dog handler or trainer in the future.
Making the reunion possible
American Humane’s Lois Pope LIFE Center for Military Affairs makes the process to reunite K-9 veterans with their handlers easier, covering the travel and transport costs and the dog’s veterinary care.
“When a military dog is medically retired from service, it can be difficult for the military to track down their latest handler for adoption, let alone figure out how to transport the dog home,” according to a spokesperson for American Humane. “The expensive process involves a lot of paperwork, headaches, and red tape - and it’s usually not a priority.”
Reunification programs like these are beneficial for both the retired dog and the former handler.
For humans, reunification brings back an unbreakable bond forged by working so closely together, something Steponovich has experienced first hand.
“This is probably one of the best detection dogs I’ve ever worked with,” Steponovich said. “I can just tell him his command and he’ll almost always just go to it.”
For the dogs, this protects them from being left in kennels alone. For a long time, K-9 forces were treated as equipment rather than companions. Bringing them home allows them to live out the rest of their days in retirement with a human they bonded with.