Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Review: One Dog at a Time, Saving the Strays of Afghanistan (dogs, Afghanistan)

One Dog at a Time, Saving the Strays of Afghanistan, an Inspiring True Story, by Pen Farthing, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2009, 308 pages, about 25$

I took a deep breath and opened page one of One Dog at a Time one empty Friday night. Suffice it to say, I finished it Saturday morning and then explored the companion website,


Farthing’s book is an inspiration which totally trumps other books about saving dogs from the 'sandbox' (Iraq or Afghanistan) - hands down!

Well Done

Well-written and well-edited, One Dog at a Time is more about the dogs than about the people trying to get the dogs out. Dogs are major characters, not merely the background - as it should be.

The Story Begins

A small contingent of British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, for a short tour in the boondocks in 2006 notice feral dog packs when out on patrol – a couple of dogs even keep pace with the patrol and follow along (for handouts?). When one Brit finds Afghans betting on a dogfight, he is compelled to step in to stop the fight - and the die is cast.

How other dogs seem to make their way to this small British enclave in the desert and what their stories are, make engrossing reading.

But even more spell-binding is the seat-of-your-pants tale of trying time and time again to transport some of these dogs to the only animal shelter in the country – hundreds of miles north, through dangerous Taliban territory, and in a country that has always been hostile to dogs. (Dogs are unclean in the Muslim religion, even though the Afghan hound takes its name from this country.)

Who should read One Dog. . . .

One Dog at a Time is for women but it is not primarily a tear-jerker.

One Dog at a Time is for men because it is about war – the boredom, the noise, the camaraderie.

One Dog at a Time is for dog-people – we meet dogs and we meet puppies, all with an amazingly different story about how they came to the small British encampment in the desert.

One Dog at a Time was for me because all of a sudden I was back in the Sandbox and saw the tans and the beiges, and felt the searing heat that made it hard to breathe under the crushing weight of my heavy body armor – all over again.

For women, this is a book about the children of war, about the dogs of war. It can be heart-wrenching to not be able to help all the children and all the women and all the dogs and puppies you see. However, it may just spur you on to do what you can.

For men. For soldiers. Every patrol is potentially dangerous. Every non-patrol is also dangerous – many NATO outposts are bombarded daily with rocket and mortar attacks. The frustration of being military in a country that may not want your presence. The frustration of having buddies injured not in a firefight but in a vehicle accident that could just as easily (almost) have happened back home. The frustration of being sent home early yourself, due to an injury.

For everyone who wants to experience the colors (tan, light brown, taupe, medium brown, dusty brown, dark brown) or lack thereof, the heat and sweat dragging you down, the boredom of being out in the boonies with only a firefight to look forward (?) to, to break the monotony - this book depicts life as it truly is (I was there, deployed to the adjacent province in Afghanistan shortly after the incidents depicted in the book). Farthing realistically portrays life for the soldier and life for the dog, each scrambling to survive and sometimes bonding together.

Hope Abounds

But it is not primarily a war book or a desert book. It is a dog book, hopeful.

Why? Perhaps Because we can. . . .

Why should we spend so much money trying to get just one dog out of Afghanistan when there are so many deserving dogs in our own country?

Perhaps because we can.

Perhaps because we are free to choose what we want to spend our money on, free to do what good we can.

Perhaps because one person has fallen in love with and bonded to one particular dog.

Perhaps because hope abounds.

What didn’t I like about One Dog at a Time? Readers who haven’t been deployed to Afghanistan may not figure out what a ‘terp’ is (interpreter - not defined at first mention) and those who are not British may have to guess at some words (I assumed ‘chuff’ means happy or excited or pleased or something like that).

What did I like about One Dog at a Time? EVERYTHING else! This book is a keeper! Although I don’t give stars or paws for books that I review, if I did, I would give One Dog at a Time the max!

Hope abounds that we can do good, one dog at a time.

(This review appeared in Yankee Dog, Fall, 2010, and GRREAT News, Jul-Aug 2010.)

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