Soldier Dogs

Maria Goodavage / Dutton Adult / 293 pages

The reader can’t get past the cover of Maria Goodavage’s book Soldier Dogs—featuring a black Lab in goggles with her head on a camouflaged lap—without uttering an audible “awwww!” From that point on you are hooked on this highly readable account of Military Working Dogs (MWDs).

When it was revealed that one member of the elite commando team that raided Osama bin Laden’s compound had four legs and a tail, the contributions of MWDs were thrust into a new light. This past year has seen many reports of their bravery, their sacrifices, the many lives they have saved, and even the suffering they have experienced from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some MWDs have served multiple tours of duty.

The book opens with a suspenseful scene: Fenji, a black German Shepherd, and her handler, Corporal Max Donahue, are walking ahead of the rest of the marines, as Fenji seeks out improvised explosive devices along a road in Safar, Afghanistan. Your heart pounds a little as you race to discover whether she finds explosives—and if Fenji and Cpl. Donahue become victims of what she may find.

The rest of the book toggles back and forth between stories of the dogs and their handlers—the heroics and the heartbreak—and explanations of the history, acquisition, evaluation, training, and duties of soldier dogs. According to Goodavage, the Department of Defense reports that there are 2,700 MWDs in service with about 600 in war zones, and another 200 working through contractors. In 2010, MWD teams found at least 12,500 pounds of explosives.

It seems that everyone, from the dogs’ handlers to top military brass, recognizes that MWDs are “not just a piece of equipment,” but rather “heroes” and “true members of the military.” Yet—as Goodavage writes—for all of that, for all the progress made with securing adoptions for retired MWDs, these dogs are indeed still treated for the most part as “equipment” by our government.

The author also raises a troubling question: “Is it right to use dogs in war? Should we be putting them in harm’s way at all? Why should dogs die for the arguments of men?” She doesn’t answer those questions, but she does leave the reader with a profound sense of awe for these amazing animals and gratitude toward them and their handlers. As Goodavage puts it, “The irony is that soldier dogs make war a little more human.”

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