CULVER — Tess took a break from chewing on the large red ball she was focused on, to sniff around a new bag set on the floor.
Not sensing anything out of the ordinary, the 11-year-old Belgian Malinois curled up on a dog bed as she refocused her energy on the toy.
“She’s only been retired for two days now,” Tess’ new owner, Joe Steenbeke, said. “Of course she’s going to think she’s still working. Just like veterans that have to transition into civilian life. If you can call it that for her.”
It had been less than 24 hours since the recently retired military dog had set foot inside her new home in Culver. She had already made herself at home, found a new favorite toy and acknowledged, then promptly ignored, Onyx, the black cat who lay lazily in a chair a few feet away.
“She’s all about having toys,” Steenbeke said, smiling down at the dog he had spent years trying to reunite with.
A U.S. Army veteran, Steenbeke served nearly a year in Afghanistan as a Tactical Explosive Detective Dog (TEDD) handler. Every minute of that deployment, Tess was at his side, sniffing out bombs and serving as emotional support for her handler.
When he was returning home from deployment, in February of 2013, Steenbeke was given only minutes to say goodbye to his partner. Tess went on to serve with the Connecticut National Guard until her retirement last week.
After years of wondering, copious amounts of paperwork and help from family, friends, nonprofits and U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski’s office, Steenbeke was able to reunite with his old friend and take her home.
“It’s been six years since I’ve had her and honestly, looking at her right now, it feels like it’s been a lifetime, but it also feels like it was just yesterday that I said goodbye to her,” he said. “I know that she’s going to be in a great home that loves her from now until forever. I’m just happy to have her back.”
In the nearly six years since they said goodbye, Tess’ muzzle had turned a little gray, but Steenbeke said she is the same pup he remembers from years ago, still jumping up on his chest to give him kisses.
“She still likes chewing on my thumbs,” he said. “Just the way she cuddles and plays with her toys and everything like that. On the way over here she actually destroyed four tennis balls, so she still has that going for her.”
Joe’s wife, Stephanie, had been hearing stories about Tess since she and her husband had started dating years ago. She was an integral part in securing Tess for adoption.
“I’d heard plenty of stories about her but as soon as they brought her out … as soon as I saw her I started crying and she just came right to him,” Stephanie said. “Just beelined right to him. Honestly, it’s like she’s always been with us. She came right in the house last night, she picked out a toy, she picked a bed and she slept all night. It’s like she’s been here forever. She’s just fit right in.”
Stephanie says she and Joe couldn’t be more grateful for all of the help and support that they have been given through the years-long process.
“There are so many people who have helped us along the way that we will never be able to thank,” she says. “That upsets me, because I want everybody to know how important this really is to us.”
Stephanie has already seen the impact Tess has had on her family, saying that Joe, who suffers from PTSD, has slept better since reuniting with his canine companion. Joe agrees.
“I mean just having her around, being able to say, ‘Hey come here, Mama’ and then hear her collar kind of jingling all the way towards me and the way she still gets excited when she sees me and stuff like that,” he said.
Looking forward, Joe is excited to take Tess for walks by the lake where his in-laws live, and along the river that runs behind his home. In a day or two, after she has had some time to get used to her surroundings, Tess will be introduced to his and Stephanie’s other dog, Wyatt, a Dalmatian.
An avid golfer and the head golf coach for Ancilla College, Joe also hopes to get Tess out with him on the greens.
“I actually want to teach her how to find golf balls,” he said. “That will be a fun little trick for her. But just having her around is more than enough. … We’re just looking forward to giving her a good retirement life. She’s worked so hard her entire life now she gets to sit back and have fun and live like an eccentric billionaire,” he laughs.
There is one more experience Joe and Stephanie look forward to, introducing Tess to their baby who is due at the end of March.
“Things in life for me come in threes,” Joe said. “So there’s the dog and the baby. I hope the third one is good, because the first two are awesome.”