As citizens of the United States of America, we are fortunate that, although our country has been embroiled in military conflicts for much of its history, we have seen little warfare on home soil. The wars in which this nation is currently engaged, 7,000 miles across the world, are often not on our minds. Nonetheless, every casualty of war is someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, mother or father.

What many of us don’t realize is how often the human losses this country suffers in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are accompanied by the loss of canine soldiers. But dogs serving in the military save countless lives as well.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Brent Olson got a Purple Heart for his actions in Afghanistan. His dog Blek H199 was also wounded in the explosion, but military working dogs get no official recognition for their heroic acts.

More than 600 dogs are serving in the military in these two wars, and author and former USA Today reporter Maria Goodavage has delivered an unparalleled look at the dogs, and the men and women they work with, in her new book. “Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes,” published by Dutton Penguin.

Unusual attention was drawn to the dogs that serve in the armed forces in 2011, when news leaked that one member of SEAL Team Six, the special operations group credited with killing Osama bin Laden, was Belgian Malinois ‘Cairo.’ Since then interest in “soldier dogs” has skyrocketed. Though dogs have been used by the American military since World War I, they have been among the best kept secrets of the armed services.

Jack Russell Terrier Lars J274 proved that sometimes smaller is better, and necessary; he is pictured with Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Cameron Frost practicing explosives detection on a submarine in Norfolk, Va. Photo by Naval Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul D. Williams for “Soldier Dogs.”

Gen. David Petraeus, former commander of the United States forces in Afghanistan and now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in 2010 that the military was in need of more dogs, because “the capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine.”

Dogs are now serving in all branches of the military, not only on search and patrol missions, but increasingly as the early warning systems that find and alert human soldiers to deadly improvised explosive devices. Now commonly known as IEDs, in 2010 alone these often-hidden makeshift bombs killed or wounded more than 7,800 U.S.-coalition forces, accounting for nearly half of all casualties.

Some military canines become experts in helicopter maneuvers. Here a soldier and a combat tracking dog, trained to follow human scent instead of explosives, go immediately from helicopter to engaging in a search for an adversary.

Human beings have 40 million olfactory receptors that pick up scent; dogs have two billion. The dog’s sense of smell is 100,000 times stronger than man’s. Throughout history, humans have taken advantage of the extraordinary scenting capabilities of dogs to hunt, track missing persons or criminals on the loose, find humans following natural disasters, and detect drugs and other contraband. More recently dogs have been trained for ever more complex tasks, from sniffing out termite infestations to detecting invasive species in lakes and rivers to, amazingly, detecting cancer cells in humans long before any medical test can find them.

Cpl. Max Donahue and Fenji in Afghanistan.

It is this incomparable sense of smell that allows America’s soldier dogs to detect IEDs when humans cannot, and to help save lives in the bargain. In a spine-tingling excerpt from her book, Goodavage describes a scene that’s all too common on the roads of Afghanistan:

It’s 7 a.m., just north of the town of Safar, Afghanistan, and Fenji M675 is already panting. Her thick, black German shepherd coat glistens in the hot August sun. Fenji is out in front of ten marines, leashed to a D-ring that’s attached to the body armor of her handler, Corporal Max Donahue. He’s six feet behind her and holds his rifle steady.

Fenji leads the marines down the flat dirt road, past trees and lush vegetation in this oasis amid the deserts of southern Afghanistan. She ignores the usual temptations: a pile of dung, a wrapper from a candy bar. Her mission doesn’t include these perks. Her nose is what may keep them all alive today, and she can’t distract it with the trivial. Coalition forces have been sweeping Safar of insurgents and their bombs, allowing the Safar Bazaar marketplace to reopen and locals to start living normally again. The Taliban had to go somewhere else. So they headed north. And they planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) like seedlings, among the poppy fields and grape fields and off to the sides of roads, under thick weeds.

Around here, any step you take could be your last.

And that’s why Fenji is in the lead, walking point. IEDs are the top killer in Afghanistan – even with the highest technology, the best mine-sweeping devices, the most sophisticated bomb-jamming equipment, and the study of “pattern of life” activities being observed from remote piloted aircraft. But there is one response that the Taliban has no answer for: the soldier dog, with his most basic sense – smell – and his deepest desire – some praise and a toy to chew.

Cpl. Donahue and Fenji on patrol.

“Seek!” Donahue tells Fenji, and they continue down the road, leading the men from the 3/1 (3rd Battalion 1st Marines). She walks with a bounce to her step, tail up and bobbing gently, as she half trots down the road. Every so often, she stops and sniffs a spot of interest and, when she doesn’t find what she’s seeking, moves on. She almost looks like a dog out on a morning stroll in the park. Donahue, in full combat gear – some eighty pounds of it, including water for his dog – keeps up with her.

Fenji stops at a spot just a foot off the side of the road. She’s found something of great interest. Without taking her eyes off the spot, she sniffs around it swiftly and her tail starts to wag. Suddenly she goes from standing up to lying down, staring the entire time at the spot. The men have stopped walking and are watching her. Her wagging tail kicks up some dust. Everything is silent now. No more sniffing, no crunching of boots.

A dog alerting to an explosive under the sand.

Goodavage’s engaging account, much of it told through the eyes of the soldiers who live it, will make even the most devoted dog lover all the more appreciative of both our human military heroes and their canine companions. Like any good reporter, Goodavage’s story is written in the field. Much of the book is focused on the work these dogs and soldiers do day-to-day, but Goodavage also covers how military dogs are chosen and trained, and she reveals a heartwarming and emotional look at the relationships that are forged between soldier dogs and their human partners.

The job the soldiers and their dogs perform is grueling, but there are occasional fun and games, and deep bonds between soldier and dog, as well. Air Force Staff Sgt. James Bailey’s dog ‘Ajax’ enjoys some downtime.

Dog lovers won’t want to miss this one-of-a-kind portrait of the men, women and dogs who so bravely fight for us every single day. For anyone who doesn’t know what utterly remarkable creatures dogs are – and how they can fill the human heart almost to overflowing – this is a must-read as well.


Fellow Marines and soldier dogs pay tribute to Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Max Donahue, critically injured on August 4, 2010, while on a mission in Afghanistan with Fenji. Donahue, 23, passed away on August 6, though Fenji survived.

”Soldier Dogs” is available at Barnes & Noble and For more information about the book, including video and additional photographs not included in the book, visit

Photographs courtesy of Maria Goodavage and Dutton Penguin Group.