'Soldier Dogs' Tells the Story of America's Canine Heroes

Multipurpose canines are a small subset of specially trained military dogs that are used in all kinds of situations. ANURAKE SINGTO-ON/Shutterstock

When Navy SEAL Team Six raided Osama bin Laden’s compound last year, Cairo, the Belgian Malinois that accompanied the soldiers, brought military dogs into national headlines. Today, the four-legged hero that the New York Times deemed “the nation’s most courageous dog,” is the only member of the SEAL team to be identified by name — and he’s even met the president.

Cairo’s story captured the attention of Americans and left many with questions about these canine soldiers, their training and what happens to them when they’re done serving. Maria Goodavage’s new book, “Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes,” answers these questions and tells the stories of these dogs who play a significant role in our military efforts.

Goodavage, the news editor at Dogster.com and a former USA Today reporter, interviewed men and women who train and work with military dogs, and “Soldier Dogs” looks at how these dogs are procured and trained, addresses the ethics of utilizing dogs in battle and explores many of the misconceptions people have about these animals.

For instance, not all military dogs are trained to parachute from planes and rappel from helicopters. These dogs are a small subset of military dogs known as multipurpose canines (MPCs), and they’re used in Special Operations, including the Navy SEALs. Cairo is an example of an MPC.

In fact, some dogs don’t see battle at all — some simply work with troops to combat stress. Others are trained for bomb detection.

“These dogs have a lot of roles. The biggest one right now in Afghanistan is going out in front of the troops and sniffing out IEDs. They lead the way, so they save lives every day because their noses are so amazing,” Goodavage said in a recent interview on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

“Soldier Dogs” also takes a look at the history of animals in the military. Dogs have been used in military operations since World War I, but whereas trained canines were once left behind or euthanized, they’re now adopted when they’re done serving.

“The dogs will hang out for months with their handler and then they’ll probably deploy together. And once they deploy, they go through their seven months and they come back together. That’s a big misunderstanding. People think that dogs are left over in Afghanistan, but they come back with their handler,” Goodavage said.

The handler-dog relationship is particularly interesting to Goodavage. Although the Defense Department officially considers military working dogs to be equipment, the dogs’ handlers say the animals are their best friends.

“The handler-dog bond goes so deep,” Goodavage says. “A lot of handlers say ‘I’m closer to my dog than I am to my spouse,’ and these are people who love their spouses. But they’re with the dogs 24/7. Their lives depend on the dogs.”

And while you might think that all military dogs are large breeds like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, “Soldier Dogs” will introduce you to at least one tiny pup that proves size doesn’t matter. Lars, a Jack Russell terrier with a “Napoleon complex,” helps keep servicemen and women safe by sniffing for explosives in submarines. Goodavage says that Lars’ handler told her that “Inside, he’s a big dog with a big attitude.”

Check out the "Solider Dogs" book trailer below to see Lars and several other military dogs that Goodavage met while researching her book.