War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Lore

war dogs

“War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Lore,” by Rebecca Frankel. Palgrave Macmillan. $26.

While Military Working Dogs are the common thread, this moving historical tableau touches deeply into the psyche of the handlers and instructors who work these incredible animals on the warfront abroad and the military hospitals stateside. war dogs

And to get a first-hand feel for the training rigors and demands, Frankel gets in the mix by participating in exercises at the 1,300-square-mile Yuma (Ariz.) Proving Ground, the roadway to war.

From World War I until the present Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the role of the Military Working Dog has changed continually. Today, of course, the emphasis is on detecting IEDs, which have taken the lives of many U.S. servicemen.

“It is a relationship built first on a mutual trust,” Frankel writes, “one that can flourish into something more intimate – trust with a greater sense of loyalty and even love. It’s this bond that, in a combat zone, encourages the dog’s desire to work his keen senses to the advantage of his human companions and inspires heroic feats of bravery when the instinct to flee or sense of fear might dictate otherwise. Together this team endures what seems unendurable – trauma, injury, and even death. And if all this proves too much to bear, the handler and dog who suffer the same afflictions can even heal together. It is symbiotic relationship that challenges and changes the way a person experiences war.”

For all of us readers far from the war front – most of whom are dog owners – Frankel serves up an introspective look at the fine-tuned intricacies and solid appreciation of the demands on the Military Working Dog team from the outset of training to uncovering an explosive device hidden beneath a pile of rocks on an Afghan roadway traveled by American servicemen either afoot or in a vehicle.

“War Dogs” isn’t a happy-face volume, rather a sobering mix of psychological gymnastics that deals with the death of dogs and handlers to the thanks of fellow soldiers to dog teams for saving their lives. While the bulk of the attention is focused in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq, some is devoted to U.S. military hospitals where trained therapy dogs elicit smiles and touches from injured veterans who can’t be reached by trained medical therapists.

And not to be overlooked, some returning MWDs are suffering, too, from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, since they experience the same working conditions and stress as their handlers, from continued gunfire to large explosions. Frankel notes that when the number of dogs on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq peaked in 2011 at 650, it was estimated that 5 per cent were developing CPTSD (Canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The author also touches on the MWDs’ incredible toolbox of senses – particularly smell and night vision – and builds a strong case for maintaining a high-level MWD training program going forward as we face continued threats from terrorists both abroad and within this country.

“Any handler who has brought a dog with him or her to war will say it made all the difference in the world,” she says. “They will say that the dog by their side provided them with something more than just a living, breathing piece of home – the dog acted as a talisman, insulating them from whatever horrors unfolded, bringing them peace in turbulence, offering companionship in times of loneliness. The dog’s presence made the path through war bearable, the endurable somehow endurable, and many will say they came through the other side more stable.”

Noting that “dog handlers are their own breed,” she gives the reader a sharp focus into their intoxicating blend of tension and passion. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Sean Lulofs contends handlers have their own place in the military world, like drops of oil floating in water – distinct, separate. “Leadership doesn’t understand us,” Lulofs opines, “because they don’t understand our mindset. They don’t quite grasp us because they don’t understand dogs.”

The psyche of dog training – from alpha-role figure to the mindset that there is no, single cookie-cutter way to train a dog, since each is unique – is skillfully reflected in one vignette after another from the Middle East to the Yuma Proving Ground.

Make no mistake about, MWD handlers are a tight-knit family that extends from one war to another, Frankel reflects. Each understands the other, no matter the enemy or the environment.

In the epilogue, she acknowledges that the insight gleaned from and challenge of writing this volume left her with a new-found perspective of war. “It’s not that I now think of these things – conceptually or otherwise – as necessarily better or worse than I did before . . . ; they are just far more layered, complex, and complicated, and infinitely more interesting.”

“War Dogs” breaks through the psychological layers of military speak and is framed in a vibrantly insightful portrait of gritty characters and heavy emotional artillery that leaves the reader with a new-found appreciation of these highly tuned, life-saving teams.