Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bow wow, the dogs of war

As a dog owner I am fascinated by the exploits of our Military Working Dogs fighting alongside our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've learned that besides serving as patrol and bomb-sniffer dogs, our combat canines have been deployed as crucial members in secret operations. The most famous being the K-9 commando who accompanied the Navy SEALs in their mission to kill Osama bin Laden. The Internet is full of images of MWDs jumping out of helicopters, parachuting, and sneaking through the battlefield. Dogs are fearlessly protective and tenacious. Their sense of smell continues to astound us with its sensitivity. Our four-legged friends may seem to be the perfect warriors. However, I know an Army colonel who used dogs in combat and he has mixed feelings about their performance. For one, the breeds best suited for tactical use are Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds. These dogs evolved in a temperate to cool climate and as a result don't do well in hot weather. The colonel told me these dogs are very prone to heat stress and so lose their effectiveness. Plus, like humans, even the best-trained dogs get freaked out by the chaos of combat and can turn on the friendlies. And the loyalty factor works both ways. When dogs are ordered to search a cave or a house, their handlers often refuse to let their dogs go in alone since the enemy can be waiting in ambush. Dog handlers can get so keyed up that they risk court martial rather than let their dogs advance without them.

Wow, these are the elements for a great story. I got it into my head to write a novel featuring MWDs thinking that would be a different take on our wars overseas. And everyone loves a good dog story. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one with such an idea and I’ve learned that pitches for MWD tales are sluicing through agents’ inboxes. And Amazon also carries plenty of such stories. One book does stand out, Suspect by Robert Crais. Only the first chapter shows the dog in her MWD role and the majority of the story deals with how the dog and her handler (a wounded police detective) work to overcome their PTSD and bond together. Besides Crais’ extraordinary writing, he does a fantastic job of revealing the narrative in the dog’s point-of-view without anthropomorphizing her. Crais set a high bar for a dog story and one that I’ll have to work hard at meeting.

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