Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review: War Dogs (military working dogs)

War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, by Rebecca Frankel (Macmillan, 2014, 251 pages, $26)

A Good Book

I stand corrected: I used to say that a good book is a 24-hour book (you can finish it in 24 hours!) but War Dogs, a good book, took me more than 24 hours to read (the holidays interfered). However, it may very well be a 24-hour book for you!

The very readable War Dogs is one in a long line of recent books about military working dogs* (MWDs) but War Dogs may just be the best.

Rebecca Frankel, related by marriage to one of my long-time commentator heroes, James Fallows, whetted my appetite for War Dogs when she appeared on NPR’s (National Public Radio’s) Diane Rehm Show (October 20, 2014).

Frankel has now penned a non-fiction book that is a compelling read and informative, covering both sides of several controversial issues such as whether or not the dogs really love their handlers and vice-versa in Chapter 3, The Trouble with Loving a War Dog. Although most of the military handlers interviewed consider their dogs weapons and consider their relationship not to be one of mutual love, affection and bonding, their actions happily belie their words.

Quality Quotes

As I read and reviewed more and more books over the past years, I started to pay attention to the pre-publication quotes on the back cover (and front cover) and also to who writes the foreward. Of course, most of the names generally are other authors or friends rather than subject matter experts. Frankel, however, has quotes from quality folks: General Petraeus, Thomas Ricks, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Peter Bergen, Mike Dowling and Dr. Stanley Coren – all well-established military or dog people.


War Dogs is organized roughly into three parts but the reader may not be aware of them, becoming so engrossed in the stories of the dogs and their training and handlers which Frankel comes back to, time and time again. (In a pinch, you can read these stories in any order.)

Frankel has done her research thoroughly, from Kevin Behan** (not a trainer I would have chosen to write about since his ‘natural’ training methods [and Cesar Millan’s] are not based on science) to Dr. Juliane Kaminski’s current canine research to Frankel spending considerable time observing and interviewing (as well as taking part in and surviving) military dog training and just ‘hanging around’ trainers and handlers in the uncomfortable Virginia humidity and the excessive Arizona heat.

Although War Dogs focuses on current military working dogs, primarily in Afghanistan (in the province where I was deployed so I know of the veracity of her writing first-hand), and on their training, she also relates the history of military dogs over the past hundred years, especially their roles in World War II and Vietnam.

What you will learn and experience

Dogs are surprisingly astute in social intelligence, having to learn a second language – that of human body language and verbal sounds.

Although Frankel uses the usually misused term alpha entirely too often, she also spends considerable time on reward-based and praise-based training as opposed to compulsion-based training (the former uses KONGs and tennis balls as rewards – yippy skippy!).

You are there

Some non-fiction authors research thoroughly and write a factual report that turns into a book while others research just as well and literally ‘take you there.’ They report less and tell more, engrossingly. You are drawn into the book as if it were fiction, as if it were happening to you: Frankel is just such an author: I will read any future book she writes!

*Other books on MWDs:
Dogs of War: The Courage, Love, and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs, by Lisa Rogak (Thomas Dunne Books, 258 pages, 2011, $14.99) (click on the title to see my review)
Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond between a Marine and his Military Working Dog, by Mark Dowling
Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca, by Maria Goodavage
Soldier Dogs, by Maria Goodavage
Trident Canine Warriors: My Tale from the Training Ground to the Battlefield with Elite Navy SEAL Canines, by Mike Ritland

**Perhaps being from Connecticut, Frankel knew of Behan (also from Connecticut) and was able to more easily interview him than leading dog trainers

Read More About It: Frankel's photo essay from 2011 on War Dogs

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