Sunday, November 18, 2012

Soldier Dogs by Maria Goodavage

Soldier Dogs tells the amazing story of dogs who serve in the United States military. Goodavage, a well known author who has written previously about dogs, provides readers with a detailed look into how military dogs are acquired, trained, and deployed along with their soldier-handlers in the military. As she leads us through this journey, she also provides more personal accounts of the dogs and their handlers.

Not many people know about dogs serving in the military. (I vaguely knew they existed but not much more.) These dogs receive no reward and no military honors for their service, despite the fact that their work is dangerous and despite continued pressure from veterans and from advocacy groups. Currently, dogs are considered equipment by the US military and equipment doesn't get honoured. But in 2010, U.S. military dog teams in Afghanistan located more than 12,500 pounds of explosives, saving numerous lives of both soldiers and Afghan civilians.

Interest in soldier dogs increased greatly after it became known that a Belgian Malinois was part of the SEAL Team Six which took out Osama bin Laden. Throughout history, dogs have been used in warfare as trackers, messengers, scouts, for protection, for sentry duty and also for attacking. Goodavage provides a brief history of the use of dogs by the military, including their use during the Vietnam War as sentry dogs. Dogs provided companionship during wartime. I know from my dad who served during World War II, having a dog helped ease the stress of war. He took in a stray and kept it during his time in England preparing for deployment to the continent.

Soldier Dogs begins by following Corporal Max Donahue and his dog, Fenji, a black German shepherd, who is walking point one hot August day in Safar, Afghanistan. They are part of coalition forces who are sweeping the area for insurgents and their bombs. As they walk along, leading the men from the Third Battalion First Marines, Fenji locates something of interest at the side of the road, sniffs the area and then her tail begins to way. She lies down and her handler praises her as he draws her away from the area. Fenji has just located an IED and this is her way of alerting to such a find. Its location marked, they move down the road to search for more bombs. On this day, Fenji will find three more roadside IEDs. Such is the life of a working military dog and her handler. It is a dangerous job and one in which at least seventeen handlers have died over last decade working in the Middle East.

Surprisingly, the United States military buys all its dogs overseas in Europe. This is because most of the best breeders are located in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France. Stewart Hilliard, the military working dog (MWD) program manager at Lackland Air Force Base where dogs and handlers are trained, explains the different roles dogs have in the military and how the US procures its dogs. Dogs are evaluated on the basis of their health, environmental stability (how well a dog tolerates intense stimuli), and how much they desire to hunt for a ball. The latter trait is bred into them, as they are often hunting dogs. The most common breeds utilized by the military are German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois.

Once dogs arrive state-side, they must go through boot camp for dogs and then canine basic training. Dog school consists of first going through detection training, learning eight explosive scents. The next part is patrol training and training to bite. Not all dogs make it through patrol training. Goodavage discusses the training method used by the US military - which is mostly reward-based. For a job well done, military dogs receive much praise and a Kong toy which they are crazy for.

Military personnel go through an eleven week course on how to become a handler. The chapters on predeployment training are fascinating, not only because of the experiences described but also because of the unique people who co-ordinate the training. And that is one of the prime strengths of Goodavage's book. She had unprecedented access to military personnel for interviews and was able to view the training facilities and watch dogs and their handlers being trained.This up-close-and-personal perspective not only makes her book enjoyable but helps the ordinary person see the devotion and care that handlers have for their dogs and how the dogs in turn help the soldiers cope with the trauma of war.

Handlers must learn to provide medical aid.

Handlers and their dogs can take the Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 (IASK) Course at the Yuma Proving Ground where the climate and terrain are similar to many Middle Eastern countries where troops are deployed. Dogs and their handlers are exposed to raids, night operations and home made explosives. Dogs also learn to work off the leash, a valuable skill outside the wire.

There's a fascinating section of the book on canine physiology and behaviour. Another section deals with the special bond between dog and handler, a bond that sometimes transcends death. And of course what would a book on military dogs be without stories of dogs and their handlers. Many of these stories are heartwarming, some are terribly sad.

Maria Goodavage's Soldier Dogs. The Untold Story of American's Canine Heroes is a must read for those interested in the military and definitely for dog lovers. Well written and informative, with lots of attention to detail, this book is at times deeply touching with its stories of heroes - both human and canine. If anything, the reader will come away with a deeper respect for man's best friend and a better understanding of soldier dogs.

For more pictures and videos please visit Maria's website, Soldier Dogs and take time to visit the Bonus Features page.

Book Details:
Soldier Dogs. The Untold Story of America's Canine Heroes by Maria Goodavage
New York: Dutton 2012
292 pp.

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