I’ve decided to branch out a bit with the blog and try something new. I wanted to interview an author whose work I respect and admire. But I didn’t want to stray too far from the core of my blog, which led me to New York Times Besting Selling author Maria Goodavage. Maria’s book Soldier Dogs is the Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes. If you have checked out my Facebook page you may have seen some posts about Maria’s incredible work.
Maria is a former San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today reporter and currently the news editor at Say Media’s Dogster.com. She has been writing about dogs for years. After one conversation with her you will realize that she is an absolutely fabulous lady and a complete dog lover.
Maria grew up hearing stories from her father on how dogs provided comfort for the troops during World War II. When she was approached about this project she jumped at the opportunity to explore what, for most, is the unknown world of military working dogs.
Here is a link to an interview with Maria on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Show from March. Check out her energy and sincerity. When she talks about dogs her eyes light up!
I love the structure of Soldier Dogs. It consists of short chapters, making the book easy to put down and pick back up. In the book Maria combines a great balance of technical dog-speak and research with heartwarming and hard hitting topics that provide the reader a holistic view of our military dogs, their handlers and the impact they have on our troops.
If you are interested in military dogs or dogs in general I think this is a book you are going to want to read. Maria’s enthusiasm and love of dogs radiates throughout. It is evident as you read the book and see how she effectively interviews military dog insiders to give away facts, stories and methods never before revealed, like:
How are these dogs procured?
What is it about a dog’s nose that makes them more effective in sniffing explosives than million-dollar pieces of equipment?
How are our dog teams trained?
What is a dog’s motivation to find explosives for our troops?
What happens to a dog when their service is completed?
These questions and so much more are answered in Maria’s comprehensive coverage of our furry, four-legged Warrior.
I’m not going to ask questions that others have asked. My questions are uniquely from a soldier’s perspective.
So Maria, what was the biggest misconception carried into your research that you found was untrue?
The biggest misconception I had was that the training must be pretty harsh to get these dogs to perform as incredibly as they do. After all, these are tough dogs with extremely demanding jobs. If Cesar Millan has to get harsh with the pet dogs he works with, the military dog handlers must have to really exercise force. Or so I thought.
But I was blown away by the extremely positive training I saw day in, day out, everywhere I went. (A lot of handlers and trainers weren’t aware there was a writer in their midst, so it wasn’t as if they were putting on a show.) Whenever their dog performed well, they’d reward the dog bigtime. After the dog did a great job, like sniffing out an explosives scent, the handler would whoop it up, praising the dog genuinely and like mad, and throw him his Kong. If a Kong wasn’t around, a tennis ball or even a glove would do. The rewarded dog was in heaven, with something to bite on in his mouth, and mega praise from his beloved handler. It doesn’t get any better than that when you’re a dog.
In detection work, not noticing a scent just meant no reward – not punishment. There was no yelling, no dragging the dog over and shoving his nose in the odor. The patrol side was only slightly different. Praise and Kongs and bite sleeves flew all around, but if a dog didn’t listen to a command during bite work – for instance, if he didn’t stop when a trainer shouted “OUT!” he’d get a quick jerk on his choke chain, and he’d be walked back to start the exercise again. (There are times, of course, of severe and uncontrolled dog aggression when a handler has to be more forceful, but this is pretty rare, and it’s only to defuse a potentially dangerous situation.)
So these dogs become lifesaving heroes mostly through this positive training. It’s about the carrot, mot the stick, these days. It’s a joy to watch, and it’s working beautifully.
Fortunately no major parts of the book were cut. All the concepts I wanted to include made it. But we couldn’t fit in a few of the stories I loved that showed the dog/handler bond. What’s great about this topic is that just about every story you hear from a handler is worthy of retelling in a book. The bond is so deep, the situations they’re in are so intense, and time after time I’ve been told there’s nothing else like the bond between a deployed dog and handler. I could fill multiple books with their stories.
What is your favorite part of the writing process and why?
I love the research, especially in a book like this where I am passionate about the topic. Getting to know the people, the dogs, the training methods, the stories – I could do that forever.
But you asked about my favorite part of the writing process, and I have to admit that my favorite part of writing is when it’s over, and behind me is a job well done. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I really love writing. There are many moments of exhilaration when I make a discovery of how to frame chapters or an idea or a story, or when I’m able to see how the book really is going to come together, or when I figure out just the right way to write something, and I get so caught up in it that nothing else exists.
But writing a solid research-driven book on a tight deadline is very hard work. On some days I’d write – or figure out how to do so – for 20 hours, barely sleep, get up, have some coffee and eggs and start again. Here’s the kicker, though. After it’s all over, and I’ve had a few weeks away from it, I always look forward to the next big project. There’s a strange amnesia that sets in, like that of a new mom who swears she’ll never have another baby again because of the pain of childbirth, then after a couple of years, wants nothing more than to have another baby. In my case, I’m already looking forward to the next book.
So, of course, it all comes down to is the dog. Can you tell us about one Military Working Dog that you just fell in love with during your research?
That’s a really tough call, Kevin, because there were so many military working dogs I fell in love with. It’s almost like having to choose your favorite child. A top contender is a dog named Rex. Rex was a huge German shepherd who had an even bigger stubborn streak early in his career. No one could work with him. You had to yell to get him to pay any attention.
An Army handler, Sgt. Amanda Ingraham, ended up paired with him, and was far from thrilled. But one day, in frustration, she spoke to him in a soft, polite way, and he immediately did as she requested. She did it again, and he performed perfectly. She was stunned. (I always wondered: Had Rex trained her?) From then on, they developed a phenomenal bond and became a highly respected team.
Rex was a gentle giant. He had failed out of aggression training at Lackland because any time he bit people wearing protective gear during practice, and they yelled or screamed in response, he immediately let go and look concerned and sad. He and Sgt. Ingraham had many adventures together, both stateside and on deployment. Rex was a godsend to troops who missed home. He always seemed to zero in on the soldiers who were having a bad day, and give them extra attention. He helped get many a solider through a tough deployment.
Sgt. Ingraham loved this dog so much that she re-enlisted with the sole purpose of being able to retire at about the same time Rex would. She dreamed of giving him the couch potato life he so richly deserved. But that was not to be. Rex didn’t live to see retirement. He died suddenly, in her arms, of a rare and fatal condition.
Rex is gone, but the bond will never be broken. This is something I’ve heard from all handlers of fallen dogs, including many from the Vietnam War. These dogs may pass on, but they live forever within their handlers.
I know dogs and I know our Military Dogs. I would never claim to be an expert in either of these subjects though. (The only thing I’m an expert in is getting into the doghouse with my wife!) No matter what level of experience you have with dogs though, I think you too will be enlightened and charmed by Soldier Dogs. I know I was.
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