We Talk to ‘Soldier Dogs’ Author Maria Goodavage About Her New Book

"Top Dog" tells the story of Lucca, a German Shepherd mix who lost a leg while serving as a military dog.

Phillip Mlynar  |  Nov 11th 2014


In 2012, author and Dogster contributor Maria Goodavage published Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes. The book profiled the world of military dogs and their handlers in unerringly close (and often grisly) detail. Following the book’s success, Maria has written a follow-up, but her new book focuses on the life and career of one particular pooch named Lucca.

The German ShepherdBelgian Malinois took part in more than 400 missions as a Marine dog during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. She lost a leg in the process, and is now enjoying retirement with the family of her original handler, Chris Willingham.

I recently interviewed Goodavage about Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca. The author talked about the dog’s most daring missions, the special skills she developed while serving, and the time a group of Marine dogs in Iraq re-created C. M. Coolidge’s painting of dogs playing poker.

Dogster: What sort of training did Lucca go through to get her ready for service?

Maria Goodavage: She spent six months learning off-leash explosives detection — a new program for the U.S. at the time. Then she spent many more months refining those skills, plus lots of physical training as well. She had to be in great shape, as all Marines did, to deal with the long missions in grueling conditions.

Even on deployment, Lucca continued training on the explosives that were unique to the areas where she was serving. Not only did she end up learning to alert to many different explosives’ scents, but she could scout them out while off-leash. Chris or Rod would use hand signals when they were far from Lucca; sometimes they would supplement that by speaking very quietly into a radio. She wore the receiver in a pocket on her harness, and she’d react to the hushed voice as if it were right beside her. If regular military working dogs have bachelor’s degrees, Lucca has a Ph.D. She was the elite of the elite.

What most people don’t know about military dog training is that it’s all carrot, no stick. The dogs love what they do because they thrive on the two main parts of the “paycheck”: Enthusiastic and heartfelt praise from their handlers, and a Kong. Put them together and you’ve got heaven on earth for these dogs.

Did the bond she formed with Chris, her original handler, differ from her subsequent relationship with Juan Rodriguez?

She bonded deeply with both of them, and vice-versa. Chris was her first handler, and was the one who trained her and went on two deployments with her. But the transition to Rod was done so gently and gradually that I think once she realized he was her new handler, she was able to develop that same bond. That was certainly sealed for her when he spent those first nights after her injury at her side in her veterinary kennel in Kandahar! Not many people sleep in their dog’s recovery kennel.

What’s the most daring or dangerous mission Lucca has been on?

There were many. Every time she went outside the wire, danger lurked with almost every step. She went on several missions in Iraq where there were firefights, IEDs (improvised explosive device), rockets, mortars, and the rest of what you imagine when you think of the hell of war. It’s hard to tease apart which was the most dangerous. She walked point — walked out front — with her handler, but everyone protected them. She was a very valuable member of every mission.

Probably the most daring missions were the ones I couldn’t write about in the book because I would be breaching operational security and possibly endangering safety in future missions. That’s somewhere I won’t go, despite other very popular books that paved the way. But this dog is one cool cucumber regardless of what she’s doing! One thing I can say is that she often fell asleep while on helicopters. That’s just not something most dogs or people do.

What are the biggest dangers military dogs face?

The biggest danger that military dogs face on deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan have been IEDs. These homemade bombs are hard to detect, which is why the dogs are there with their exquisite sense of smell. IEDs have been the No. 1 killer of troops there and are equally horrendous for locals. Dogs and their handlers are often leading the way through dangerous areas.

Dogs have, tragically, been killed in action. They are mourned as full members of the military. One dog I write about in Top Dog, a yellow Lab named Cooper — Lucca’s “boyfriend” — was killed instantly by an IED, along with his handler, Kory Wiens. Their cremated remains were buried together in Wiens’ hometown in Oregon, because like most dog teams, their bond was unbreakable. Wiens always referred to Cooper as “my son.” They were one, and Wiens’ father wanted them to be together forever. I got a lot of sand in my eyes while writing about them, and even when I talk about them sometimes.

On a brighter note, what’s the story behind the image in the book of the dogs playing poker?

Ha! Well, that was a bit of fun their handlers had during Lucca’s second deployment to Iraq. In a very M*A*S*H-like moment, they decided to have life imitate art. They posed Lucca, Posha (her second “boyfriend,” after Cooper), and Buddy for a badass Marine version of the popular Dogs Playing Poker oil-painting series. Humor helped their handlers cope with the stresses of war. Note which dog has the (unloaded) gun — and the cigars. Lucca is such a lady!

Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca, published by Dutton/Penguin, is now in stores. Read our review of the book. Read more about Lucca at the Solider Dogs’ Facebook page and website.

Read more about Lucca and other military dogs:

About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.