I am now one sixth of the way through the Book Riot Reader Harder Challenge! In the first post I wrote about trying and failing to stick to previous years’ Read Harder Challenges, and hope I can maintain this momentum! (Read more about the books I’ve read so far for the challenge here.)
For Task 4 I decided to read a book about war. The book I chose is called Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes by Maria Goodavage. I purchased the book a few years ago after seeing the author interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. The cover played a role in my decision to purchase the book as well. Isn’t the dog wearing goggles (proper name: “doggles”) the cutest?!
Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes, by Maria Goodavage
The most fascinating thing I learned from this book is that dogs are seen by the Department of Defense as equipment–their exact designation is military working dogs, or MWDs. The dogs are given names, which include a special code with a letter and numbers to denote the year their training started that is tattooed inside their ears. If you are a pet owner, I am sure you see your dog as a part of your family and not an object. I have never owned a dog, but my fourteen year old dog-niece Molly is very important to me.
I also learned that dogs have a long history of serving alongside soldiers in war, going back to the Revolutionary War. During World War II people were volunteering their pet dogs to serve. The preserved body of a dog that served in World War I named Captain Stubby is part of the collection at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
MWDs now have a higher profile as a Belgian Malinois named Cairo is rumored to have played in role in the SEAL Team 6 mission in Pakistan to take down Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, and many families are eager to adopt these hero dogs after they retire from military service.
Goodavage wrote about her own dog, Jake, as she interacted with the soldier dogs (and their human handlers) during her research process. She imagined how Jake would perform in the various tests the dogs are subjected to in training, such as determining their temperament in stressful situations, their responses to loud noises such as explosives and gunfire, and how well they respond to commands when working off-leash.
I thought about how Molly would respond in these situations. As Molly is spooked by vacuum cleaners and loud trucks and occasionally her three human sisters, I don’t see her performing well in combat situations. Molly’s main interests in life are resting in the sunshine, eating cheeseburgers, and having her belly rubbed.
This is Molly posing with Santa Claus, as part of an adorable fundraiser held each year by the Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City.
This book was pretty good overall, but I found the sections about dog training and dog breeding sort of boring. I don’t have a personal interest in these topics, but those that have experience training a dog and/or the science of animal husbandry may get more out of those chapters.
What I was most interested in was reading about the dogs. My favorite soldier dog in the book was a Jack Russell named Lars J274, an unlikely bomb sniffing dog. Large, imposing dogs like Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds are preferred for bomb sniffing, but due to a mix-up Lars was trained in this field. His small size and large personality make him a great fit for sniffing for bombs in submarines, which is his main job. This book has two full color photo inserts so readers can see Lars in action, as well as many of the dogs featured in the book. You can see some of these photos, including Lars, in The Daily Show clip, too.
Soldier Dogs is a book about war, so there are definitely heavy parts. I mostly cried while reading the fourth part of the book, titled “Dogs and Their Soldiers”, which detailed the intense bonds between the dogs and their handlers formed in battle. (To be honest, recalling this part of the book to write this post is bringing tears to my eyes.) One dog stood watch all night while his handler slept in a ditch while on patrol in Afghanistan. When one handler was killed, his dog was listed in his obituary as a family member. Sadly, some dogs featured in the book died in combat or of illness.
Another interesting fact is that these dogs are not eligible for official Purple Hearts, which is a policy I think should change given how much training the dogs undergo before going to war, not to mention their experiences in combat that can leave them permanently injured and, in some cases, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). See this article from the American Kennel Club to learn more about this topic. The United States War Dogs Association works to raise awareness and acknowledge military dogs.
If you are either a dog lover or interested in military history (or both!) I would recommend this book. Do be prepared for the tough sections, though.
-Written by Kerry Weinstein, Reference Librarian