Marine Sergeant Mark Vierig / "Soldier Dogs"
"Lex L479 and his handler would go to sleep in the foxholes they shared while on patrol in Afghanistan. Soon after his handler fell asleep, the Belgian Malinois would crawl out from their tarp-protected foxhole and stand guard over him through the night -- often in torrential rains."
Heroes on four legs
Author Maria Goodavage tells
a fascinating tale of the dogs of war

"Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America's Canine Heroes"
By Maria Goodavage
(Dutton, 293 pages, $26.95)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
Triviana, May 2012

One of the many little (and big) surprises in "Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America's Canine Heroes" is that the people who buy dogs for use in the U.S. military look for dogs that really love their toys.

Kongs or tennis balls, usually.

If a dog in Afghanistan saves the lives of one or five or twenty American soldiers because it found an improvised explosive device, its reward isn't really that the commanding officer has fewer letters to send to mourning families.

It's that it gets to play with a Kong or a tennis ball.

Kongs are hard rubber toys. As author Maria Goodavage describes in her fascinating book, "The most popular Kongs in the military are red or black, with what looks like three balls of different sizes fused together in a snowmanlike configuration. -- Kongs gratify a dog's prey and play drives. Toss a Kong on the ground, and it doesn't bounce true, as a tennis ball does. -- Its odd shape causes the Kong to bounce and skip erratically, much like a fleeing rabbit or other prey. Dogs chase, catch, and experience what's apparently the unparalleled feeling of the toy/prey in their mouths."

Dogs that really like their toys are easier to train at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

A talented dog such as Lex L479, a Belgian Malinois, who was working with a squad of about 20 U.S. Marines in February 2011, in the Gereshk Valley in Afghanistan. Coming back from a peaceful patrol, the squad was attacked by three Taliban insurgents. The Marines returned fire, and the three insurgents ran for a village, to hide, perhaps among other Afghans. Dog handler Sgt. Mark Vierig told Lex, "Zoecken!" which is Dutch for "search!" Lex is from The Netherlands.

As Goodavage explains, "Tracking is a dangerous mission in Afghanistan, where IEDs are so prevalent that troops don't want to go out without a metal detector or a bomb dog."

Lex tracked one of the bad guys through a village, not losing the scent through the alleyways and among the deserted buildings. Finally, they saw the man, who was washing his hands in a creek, "presumably in an effort to remove any scent of black powder."

After the man was captured, "Vierig gave Lex loads of praise, lots of pats and rubs, and threw him a tennis ball, which he joyously destroyed. 'His tennis ball is like crack cocaine to him. That dog would rather have a ball than breathe.'"

Goodavage's fascinating book has lots of tales to tell about military dogs, going back in history - including a great story about the French bitch in heat who was used to attract the interest of several German dogs, who were captured when she came back to camp - all the way through to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the animals are significantly valuable to American troops.

Early on, Goodavage addresses a key issue: "Is it right to use dogs in war? -- Why should dogs die for the arguments of men?" Goodavage spent a lot of time in research - talking with soldiers, meeting the dogs, going through part of the military dog trainer's course, up to and including the part where a huge dog attacked her, knocked her down and attempted to rip her arm off.

"As the months went by," she writes, "I met more dogs and handlers, and learned about the lives they saved, and saw the bonds they forged. I saw that, despite the less-than-ideal work conditions, these dogs have something a lot of pampered dog don't: a purpose, something meaningful in their lives."

The stories Goodavage shares are often riveting: dogs and their handlers facing ridiculous danger in Afghanistan especially, where the dogs are vital in the search for the IEDs that otherwise would kill or maim soldiers. She makes a solid case for the value of the dogs. In these tight economic times, the military dogs program is in budget danger.

"It costs the DOD (Department of Defense) about $750,000 a year" to run the training course. Some 225 handlers go through the course each year.

"But what is $750,000 when it comes to saving lives? If you have to put a life in terms of dollars, it costs the government $400,000 to $500,000 in death benefits for every soldier, sailor, airman, or marine killed in action. The Defense Department would have been shelling out more money for the lives Patrick saved that day than in costs to run the IASK Course for an entire year."

Patrick was another Malinois, who saved at least three lives in May 2011 when he found an explosive in Helmand Province of Afghanistan. "Patrick's usual style was to get excited, tail wagging hard, sniffing the area with great focus. Then he would sit or lie down in final response. This time, Patrick dispensed with the preliminaries and lay down immediately.

"(Handler Corporal Charles 'Cody') Haliscak figures his dog's last thought was 'Oh, toy!!!' ('That toy was everything to him,' he says.)" Haliscak and two other men were knocked down by the explosion. They survived. Patrick did not.

Goodavage details how the United States buys dogs for military use (the Israelis spend more per dog, but they don't need as many), and how they and their handlers are trained.

It's funny, but a good practice, that the potential dog handlers first have to spend several days with a bucket, pretending it's a dog. After they show they can handle a bucket, they get to work with a real dog.

"'Some just get scared when they get to the kennel and have to get the dog out. They feel overwhelmed, especially if the dog is really excited,' says (Technical Sergeant Justin) Marshall. Buckets don't spin in mad circles, and they don't accidently bite you or bark until your eardrums throb. The energy of these dogs can prove too much for these students, and they turn in their leash shortly after being introduced to their dog."

But, for those who hold on to the leash, and serve with their dogs in war, Goodavage provides plenty of examples of the strong bonds that develop between handlers and their dogs.

There are stories and photos of dogs sharing narrow bunk space and ditch space with their handlers, stories of handlers covering their dogs with their own bodies to protect them from incoming fire, stories of dogs that don't sleep, because they stand guard over their sleeping handlers.

Robin Jerstad / "Soldier Dogs"
"A new dog draftee at Lackland wears a bucket around his head after undergoing surgery that will prevent the fatal effects of a syndrome called bloat. The bucket keeps him from interfering with the surgical site."

Maria Goodavage / "Soldier Dogs"
"War hero Fenji needs to wear 'Doggles' to help with an eye problem, but she doesn't much car for them. When she's not working, she tries take them off at every opportunity."

Petty Officer Second Class Paul D. Williams / "Soldier Dogs"
"You don't have to be a big dog to be a soldier dog. Lars J274, a Jack Russell terrier with a Napoleon complex, is the perfect size for sniffing out bombs in submarines."