Soldier Dogs:The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes

By Maria Goodavage. Dutton. $26.95.

Before our incredible military working dogs and their handlers set foot in Afghanistan plenty of stern tests await them in the United States.

Goodavage guides the reader through that complex map, from Lackland Air Force, Texas, the hub of the Department of Defense military working dog program, to the intense Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 Course, at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, which has saved more than one participant’s life, and on to the dangerous dirt roads of Afghanistan.

The Department of Defense has approximately 2,700 U.S. military working dogs in service worldwide, with about 600 deployed in war zones. The author says, “It’s hard to quantify how many lives soldier dog teams save by way of their detection skills. Figures range from 150 to 1,800 lives per dog.” Yet they are categorized as equipment and often left behind when U.S. troops exit a war zone for the final time, much to the disdain of their devoted handlers and dog lovers nationwide.

While dogs have been saving U.S. troops’ lives since World War II, their focus and training has shifted from sentry and patrol work (they still perform those tasks) to drug and explosives detection and multi-purpose assignments today. One in particular, Cairo, a Belgian Malinois multi-purpose member of the Navy SEAL team that led the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound last May, brought special attention worldwide to the extraordinary capabilities of the dog in warfare.

The author skillfully paints a scenario of the breeding and boot-camp program at Lackland Air Force Base, along with the highly lauded Yuma skills course, including a decoy attack sequence where she volunteers to get a taste of action, wearing a thickly padded training sleeve while warding off an attacking Belgian Malinois named Laika H267 (an ID number), which she describes, “Laika is leashed just in case, but the impact is strong. She sends me reeling back a step, and the sleeve crashes into my body. She starts tearing at the sleeve and as I agitate it again she digs in, from paws pushing against my stomach and then my thigh for more leverage. Her bite is steady and strong. The power of this dog’s mouth is awesome. Without this sleeve, I’d be a bloody mess.”

“Soldier Dogs” dissects these dogs’ scents and souls, focusing on the tight bond between handler and animal, with the author noting, “ ‘My life is in my dog’s nose,’ more than one handler has told me.” And all reflect how they and their dog develop a rock-solid trust of each other and ability to read each other’s minds 24/7. That trust is further reflected in comments from several handlers who prefer deployment to state-side duty when their Velcro partner is kenneled rather than sleeping on his/her bed in a war zone.

Other strong words of praise:

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command: “The capability they (dogs) bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine.”

Air Force Master Sgt Antonio “Arod” Rodriguez, a military working-dog program manager for 12 Air Force bases: “The working dog is a weapons system that is resilient, compact, easily deployable, and can be moved fast when needed. Nothing compares.”

Master Chief Scott Thompson, who was in charge of all dog-team operations in Afghanistan for a year, “The bond will pull you through the toughest situations. I don’t think there’s anything else in the world that can compare to the bond between a handler and dog.”

The volume includes four parts – Dogs in Harm’s Way; Nature, Nurture and Training; The Dog Trainer and the Scientists; Dogs and Their Soldiers.

“Dog Soldiers” is up close and personal on many occasions, including the angst when one handler is forced to hand off his canine partner to another. One characterized it as like having your child assigned to another parent. At the opposite end of the scenario is being first in line to adopt your former work mate when it’s time for the dog to be retired.

You’ll also learn what program leaders prioritize in military working dogs and accompany one to Europe on a buying trip; the procedure for adopting a retired military working dog; how some returning dogs are treated for post-traumatic stress disorder; how scientists see dogs’ nose power and cognition.

If you’re looking for a warm, fuzzy read, you won’t find it here. There are deaths and serious injuries in the Afghanistan war zone and the gut-wrenching partings of partners, who have relied on each other for their lives. One described that bond, “It’s better than with people. It’s just simpler and more pure.”

Presented in a vivid cultural context, “Soldier Dogs” is a riveting, colorful portrait and analysis of heroes who receive no medals or ribbons and are classified simply as equipment. They deserve more.

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