Watch Dog Book Review: “Soldier Dogs” by Maria Goodavage

Watch Dog a.k.a. John D. Williams is Dogster's beloved customer support manager. He dishes on the dog issues of the day in Dogster Magazine every Thursday.


[Full disclosure: Because we’ve both worked for Dogster the last several years, Maria and I have had numerous e-mail exchanges regarding potential blog material, but we had never met or even spoken on the phone until the interview for this review.]

I love dogs and grew up reading many of the classics like Call of the Wild and Big Red, but as an adult, I tend to be utilitarian. The reviews of All I Know About Management I Learned From My Dog and Get the Cookie, Paco! were prompted by their affiliation with the subject of communication, which I have taught for over thirty years. My decision to review Maria Goodavage’s New York Times’ best-seller, Soldier Dogs, was also utilitarian because: (1) Maria writes for Dogster Magazine (how could we not do a review of her book?) and (2) there’s still some of the little boy in me who grew up building models of battleships, tanks, and fighter planes.

So I was prepared to like the nitty-gritty details of soldiers marching off to war with a modern day combination of Rin Tin Tin and Old Yeller at their sides. And while Soldier Dogs doesn’t fail to deliver on that count, I’m pleased to report Goodavage’s book is much more than the sweat, blood, and heroics of combat.

You know the drill. It’s one familiarized by Hollywood movies which follow young recruits from life on the farm to boot camp where Sgt. John Wayne toughens them into fighting men. Then it’s off to the war zone for the real action, replete with soul-searching and moralizing about how “War is hell” and “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

Maria covers much the same ground from the military working dog team’s point of view. We meet the dogs and their handlers and follow them through rigorous training under the stern tutelage of Marine Master Sergeant Kristopher Knight at Yuma Proving Ground. Then we’re in the field with Military Working Dogs (MWD) Davey N532 (a female, btw), Lex L479, Fenji M675, and others as they search out IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) saving the lives of countless soldiers and innocent civilians in the process.

She introduces a subtle point when she asks whether her dog, Jake, has the right stuff to be a MWD.

“But military dogs have something Jake doesn’t: a job. It’s something dog experts say is lacking with many pet dogs today, and it is the root of many problems. Boredom can lead to destructive or anxious behavior. At best, it’s just not much fun.”

The farther I got into Soldier Dogs, the more striking the “has a job” observation became. As Maria points out, dogs don’t start wars. They don’t plant bombs. They have no philosophical stance to defend. While countries and armies are at each other’s throats, Military Working Dogs like Davey, Lex, and Fenji are just playing the game they learned back at Gunny Knight’s school: find the smelly thing (explosives) and you get to play with the toy (usually a Kong toy or tennis ball). There’s no right or wrong to the battle — just the toy.

Because reading Soldier Dogs changed my thinking, I wondered whether Maria had changed as a result of writing the book.

“I’ve always loved dogs, but since researching and writing Soldier Dogs, I have a profound respect for dogs and what they can do. I learned so much about any dog’s ability to do more than we think they can do, and I have a completely different view of Jake in terms of his normal, everyday behaviors. There’s a lot more to Jake and other dogs than meets the eye. I think differently of all animals now as a result of being intimately exposed to the life of our military working dogs.”

The most fascinating personality to emerge from the book, for me, was Knight. He comes across like Leroy Jethro Gibbs (NCIS) -– a no-nonsense gunny not afraid to press to the edge when he knows he’s right and that a particular training method will save lives. Evidently I am not alone in this assessment. Maria confesses that she finds herself “channeling Gunny Sgt. Knight with Jake.”

Before you envision Maria nose to nose with Jake, like Sergeant Carter and Gomer Pyle, understand that while Knight’s methods are exacting, abuse of man or beast is not tolerated at Yuma Proving Ground. The course is universally lauded as the best and most demanding training course for MWDs and handlers –- one that pushes everyone to their physical limits. On those rare occasions when a handler goes too far with a dog, Marine Captain John “Brandon” Bowe says “most cases never go to court-martial but are taken care of in a process called nonjudicial punishment (NJP).”

Dogs are central to the training; central to the program; and central to the high risk work of detecting and neutralizing explosives. The bond developed between handlers and their dogs is incredibly strong. Entire units of soldiers, whose lives have been saved by a MWD finding and preventing them walking into an IED trap, often consider the dog assigned to their unit its most valuable member.

Maria reveals that during training, military dogs spend lengthy times in their kennels versus when they are deployed to duty stations and get to be with their handler pretty much 24/7. Rather than cover this less than ideal set of circumstances, Goodavage seemed to deliberately move the narrative in the direction of successful training stories. I asked if this was a conscious decision on her part.

“To a certain degree, yes. I chose to report on facts, and not, in most cases, how I think things should be; how life for a military working dog is factually versus taking on the role of crusader. The facts can do the talking and people can form their own opinions. There were a few things, though, like the fact that the military still considers dogs to be ‘equipment,’ that I just couldn’t remain quiet about. I once again let the facts do the talking, but it’s pretty evident where I (and just about everyone in the book) stand on that very unfortunate idea.”

I wish I had time to cover other key elements of the book in detail, but there just isn’t time to do justice to the stories Maria tells of courage and valor on and off the battlefield. Be sure to have a box of Kleenex handy, but please don’t think the tears will all be from sadness. There is much joy in Soldier Dogs.

You’ll cheer for Gunny Knight as he molds men and dogs into true teams. You’ll be laughing at some of the antics of the dogs, who are singularly able to be themselves at all times, finding time for important dog stuff like “lifting a leg” at the start of a mission. You’ll be holding your breath as Corporal Max Donahue and Fenji go fearlessly into harm’s way. You’ll be rooting for the commanders fighting to extend funding for the program and looking for the most successful ways to adopt out MWDs who can no longer be deployed.

Every page is a story that grips you. Every chapter makes you proud of the dogs and men who serve our country. I have a hard time imagining how anyone could read this book and not be changed, whether or not they love dogs. It’s that compelling a story. This book deserves a better review than I am able to write.

Maria’s webpage for Soldier Dogs has more information and photos, as well as links to purchase the book. And her blog has an update on the MWD program, which I am happy to report has been extended through 2014 via the efforts of Marine Captain John Bowe.

Now it’s your turn. Maria has graciously offered a copy of the book for one of our readers. In the comments section, post your thoughts about MWDs. The deadline to enter is Wednesday, June 27, at noon PST. We’ll select our favorite response and contact you via e-mail to secure a proper shipping address.

Til next week,

-john d.-

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