Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: Dogs of War (dogs, military)

Dogs of War: The Courage, Love, and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs by Lisa Rogak (Thomas Dunne Books, 258 pages, 2011, $14.99) 

How better to get buy-in into a book than to begin with Cairo, the dog on the Osama bin Laden mission who helicoptered in, in dead of night? In the first chapter, Cairo ‘tells’ his own story.

Did you know that all military working dogs (MWDs) are first trained as patrol dogs and then either explosives-detection (for IEDs) or narcotics-detection? This is just one of the fascinating facts about MWDs that you will learn in Dogs of War.

How Lisa Rogak obtained such quick and thorough access to military dog trainers and handlers, being from outside the military, is rather incredible (I tried as a soldier and dog trainer myself).

The book opens with the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, written from the point of view of Cairo (the MWD). Though fabricated (dogs don’t talk, and, MWDs, especially, don’t talk about their missions!), the scenario is probably close to or ‘right on’ as far as what really happened and shows us what an MWD is capable of doing.

Rogak covers dogs of war and their use historically, their training, veterinary care, bonding with handlers, deployments and, finally, retirement. Although I saw MWDs from different nations when I was deployed, I was amazed at what Dogs of War showed MWDs do. Their sense of smell is many times better than ours, and they can maneuver into places we can’t, due to their smaller size.

Bound and determined to attribute facts correctly to their speakers, Rogak goes overboard at times. She spells out each rank completely and each time, rather than defining its abbreviation the first time and then using the abbreviation.

In addition, she identifies a soldier by his unit which becomes a bit cumbersome and irrelevant because even those of us in the military don’t know the locations of all units. I often would have preferred the geographic location (the state) to the unit name, particularly when it interrupts the flow of the quote.

The author often mentions or quotes directly from the Field Manual as if there is only one. There are actually numerous field manuals, each with their unique title and number, referred to by their number (e.g., according to FM 3-19). If Rogak had referred to them this way, we would have felt that she really understood the military (even as her ‘Notes’ and ‘Resources’ sections are quite thorough though her major sources are the media.)

In addition, she overuses quotes, as if to give credit to everyone who talked with her, even if they didn’t have much to contribute. In one chapter, she quotes four different people in the space of four paragraphs, leading to choppiness and lack of depth.

I felt the book would be more academic if it held more prose and fewer interruptions, if it focused less on quotes and quotees than on the facts and human-interest stories.

Did you know that dogs are the only living item in the military inventory and that they receive a rank one rank higher than their handler? So, if the Army handler is Sergeant Snuffy, his (or her) dog would be Staff Sergeant Canine.

A dog-handler team is just as valuable to a patrol as the medic is and canine equipment illustrates their importance – from goggles to cameras to cooling vests and armored vests to booties and even Kongs. It is said that it takes 10 soldiers to do the work of 1 MWD and the fact that the military invests more money in training a MWD than in training a soldier attests to their value.

Each chapter in Dogs of War also profiles one to three actual dogs: however, their stories are written in smaller font on gray pages not white, so they can be a bit difficult to read.

Did you know that not all handler-dog teams are ‘for life’? Did you know that dogs are assigned to handlers based on personality? If you read Dogs of War, you will!

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