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Posted on Mar 18, 2013 in Books and Movies

Soldier Dogs, the Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes – Book Review

By Tim Tow

Soldier Dogs, the Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes. Maria Goodavage. New American Library (division of Penguin Books), 2012. 293 pages, 28 photographs, Softcover. $16.00

Soldier Dogs, the Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, provides an insightful look at the dogs serving in today’s US military. The author, Maria Goodavage, provides background on the history of military working dogs (MWDs), their selection, training, war service, and postwar fates. Although dogs are the main characters in the book, the human handlers are equally important. Individual vignettes of dogs and handlers highlight the strong bonds between men and women and their furred charges. Soldier Dogs, the Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, shows how these dogs are recruited and trained, and what they face today on the modern battlefield.


Cairo, the Navy Seal dog that was on the mission NEPTUNE SPEAR (the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011) merits a brief paragraph that clears up some misconceptions about his exact role—but also leaves much shrouded, as special-operation dog roles are still classified.

Dogs are actually considered equipment per military policy and are issued as needed. Because of this, handlers are never permanently assigned to a particular dog, though some handlers and dogs are fortunate enough to work together over many years and serve together on multiple tours. Goodavage describes multiple cases of dogs that serve most effectively with a specific handler and vice versa. The personality match between dog and handler is essential in making that unique combination of a dog team. Goodavage writes:

Skittish, fearful, gun-shy dogs or dogs who are very distractible or unfit do not make good soldier dogs. And sometimes handlers themselves are out of shape, they make too many excuses, or … they cry too much.

MWDs are classified as single purpose or dual purpose, with some rare dogs able to perform multiple purposes. Types of single-purpose dogs include: EDD (explosive detector dog); NDD (narcotics detector dog); SSD (specialized search dog); CTD (combat tracker dog); MDD (mine detection dog); TEDD (tactical explosive detector dog); and IDD (IED detector dog). Dual-purpose dogs patrol as well as detect and include patrol explosive detector dogs (PEDD) and patrol narcotics detector dogs (PNDD).

Dogs are eminently suited for their main jobs of detection and tracking. They are able to determine scents much better than we humans can because of their vastly larger number of olfactory receptors. Humans have about five million; dogs have hundreds of millions of these receptors, with German shepherds possessing 225 million.

The most common breed of MWD is the Belgian Malinois; their physical traits and temperament make them ideal. Some of the sporting breeds such as Labradors and other retrievers are not ideal because they focus on chasing prey; when tasked with detecting explosives, distraction could be fatal. For purposes of patrolling, dogs are trained to pursue and bite an opponent. These bite-trained dogs need to be aggressive and have to hang onto their targeted prey until their handlers and human troops can catch up and secure the target.

Dogs are recruited from several sources, although the military has started its own breeding programs. Some are sourced from Europe and need to receive commands delivered in the languages their original trainers used, such as French or German.

Single-purpose detection dogs are usually trained in 90 days, while dual-purpose dogs—the vast majority—take up to 120 days. Training is critical to the effectiveness of the dogs that must learn to react consistently to the smell of explosives or narcotics. Training of the human handlers is just as important. Initially they do not train with dogs but with old ammunition cans or buckets before graduating to the real thing.

In addition to training, many dogs also undergo surgery. Missing teeth are often replaced with titanium teeth for dogs. Among the regular surgical procedures, female dogs are spayed and every dog over 35 pounds gets a gastropexy (surgical attachment of the stomach to the abdominal wall) to prevent bloating of the stomach from accumulated gasses, a once-common problem that killed nine percent of MWDs. That percentage has now dropped to near zero because of this life-saving surgery.

The majority of dogs go through the basic training course, but additional training for “outside the wire” work is offered. The gold standard for that course is the Yuma, Arizona, based Inter-Service Advanced Skills K-9 (IASK) course. On the cusp of the book’s publication last year, funding for IASK was in doubt, as it was considered optional by a military looking at saving money. Goodavage provides ample evidence of the important of this course in preparing dogs and their handlers for duty in dangerous war zones. Per the author’s blog, the good news is that funding has now been assured through FY14 for this critical course. The Marine Corps, which sponsors the course, has stated that it must be an enduring requirement. At present it is the number 1 initiative for FY15. In light of the fluid nature of counterinsurgency warfare and continuing evolution of Improvised Explosive Device (IED) techniques and technology, this advanced course is essential to ensuring dogs and their handlers get the latest intelligence and training to combat the newest threats.

Although dogs are ineligible for medals, legislation has been passed to improve their status. At the end of America’s wars in the past, military dogs were euthanized or abandoned. Most notably, after the withdrawal from Vietnam where over 3,800 dogs served only about 200 returned to the United States. Part of the reasoning behind this blanket euthanasia was that some dogs had been trained as sentry dogs, training that created vicious animals even some handlers had difficulty controlling. Only a small proportion of MWDs are trained in such manner, however, and most of even those bite-trained animals can successfully transition to civilian life. In 2000 “Robby’s Law” (H.R. 5314), which provided for the adoption of suitable military dogs at the end of their service, was unanimously approved by Congress and signed into law by then-president Bill Clinton, helping ensure that MWDs would be afforded the opportunity to retire from service to civilian life. The law was named for a service dog whose owner tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to adopt to save the animal from being euthanized.

Solider Dogs will appeal to dog lovers who want to learn about MWDs. Many may consider, while reading the book, how their dog might compare or might handle that duty. The author compares her dog, a golden Labrador, throughout the book, and she did not find him lacking.

If you are looking for detailed statistics on dogs in war,or a more thorough accounting of the role of canines beyond their contemporary use in the US military, Solider Dogs is not it; this book focuses on tactical details and loving portrayals of the handlers and their animals. Readers will feel great sympathy for the brave work being done in lands far away from home by our dog teams, especially for those who did not return. After reading this book, it is clear that our canine partners deserve much credit for their service. For more information, refer to the author’s blog at

Tim Tow has studied the history of military intelligence and writes on technology and military affairs.