The tight bond between a dog and his handler is paying off. TSA named Koa Purugganan the agency’s 2022 Canine Handler of the Year during the annual TSA Honorary Awards Ceremony this month.
Purugganan described the feeling of learning he earned top dog as “surreal.”
“This is something I wanted to accomplish before my career as a canine handler ended,” he said. “It feels really good to be recognized for the work I have put in over the years.”
Purugganan is one of 16 canine handlers with TSA Las Vegas (LAS), and although he’s only been with the LAS canine team since 2019, he serves as a lead trainer and mentor, making it a point to help all handlers pass their evaluations each year.
“I began to build a rapport with the other teams as I trained with them day in and day out, which allowed me to deliver critique that was well-received,” he explained. “I learn each team’s personality and ability level and figure out how to make them mesh into the best team possible, delivering advice and setting training based on each team’s needs. I try to tailor my advice in a way each handler can easily understand and works well with their canine. While doing this, I also learn a lot as I troubleshoot new problems that I may encounter or find alternative ways to remedy problems I am dealing with.”
Purugganan consistently volunteers and works tirelessly to ensure canine enhanced screening is available and used during peak travel periods, adding a key layer of security.
“We are a vital layer of security,” noted Purugganan. “When we are shorthanded or canine enhanced screening is extended during peak times, we need to be available. We complement checkpoint screening and allow for faster processing. By coming in for overtime to help, I alleviate some of the workload placed on my fellow handlers.”
Purugganan, though, couldn’t get the job done without his trusted partner, Bimbo-Booms (nicknamed Bubba).
“I see and treat him as my son,” he said. “We have a very strong bond, and I think the relationship we have is what makes us so good as a team. He gets a lot of affection from me, even while at work, because he is able to flip a switch so quickly from play to work. Those interactions are a big reason why he works so hard for me.”
If you’re wondering why Bimbo-Booms got his nickname Bubba, Purugganan shares the humorous story.
“While going through my initial training in San Antonio, we were at the airport conducting a gate search, and I called his name, Bimbo,” recalled Purugganan. “A female passenger looked up at me with a shocked look on her face, and I told her I wasn’t talking to her; it was my dog’s name. Well, she did not believe me. So, the next time we trained at the airport, I called for him, using the latter half of his name, Booms. In an airport setting, this again was not received very well. There were a lot of concerned looking passengers when I said ‘Booms’. So, I had to find something similar enough in tone that he would respond to and that would avoid offending or alarming passengers. So, the name Bubba was born.”
Because of Purugganan’s skills, abilities and drive, TSA LAS hasn’t experienced a shortage of available certified canine teams for local security operations and training events with local partners, such as the Las Vegas Airport Authority, city casinos and Nellis Air Force Base canine teams. Purugganan is considered the true example of a team player.
“It feels good to hear others consider me a team player,” Purugganan replied. “What makes a strong team is the bond and understanding you gain over years of training with each other for both the individual canine teams and the canine program as a whole. The more invested you are in each other’s success, the more success you will have.”
Despite his busy schedule, Purugganan is able to balance work, Bubba and his family.
“I want to say, ‘Thank you to my wife, Grace, for all of the support over the years and allowing me to move our family from Hawaii to Las Vegas so I could chase my dream career,’” he said. “And to my daughters, Kailani and Leia, ‘I hope you see this one day and are inspired to chase your dreams and be the best in whatever you do.’”
By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs