Overview: After 9/11, the U.S. military began to specially select, train and deploy multi-purpose K9s to serve side-by-side with the nation’s most elite Special Operations soldiers, finding and disarming enemies while providing emotional support to troops in the bleakest hours.
From executive producer Channing Tatum and director Deborah Scranton (The War Tapes, HBO’s Earth Made of Glass), War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend highlights the intimate relationship between U.S. Special Operations soldiers and their K9s, who serve together as human-animal teams in combat.
Paying tribute to their service, War Dog recognizes the invaluable impact of these K9s on their human counterparts. With unprecedented access, the film brings these extraordinary stories to life, featuring exclusive military footage, personal photos, on-the-ground combat and drone video surveillance footage, footage of war dogs training and in action, and revealing interviews with the handlers, who open up about the physical and emotional struggles they’ve faced.
Underscoring the unwavering loyalty and bravery that make these four-legged brothers- and sisters-in-arms heroes in their own right, this documentary also profiles the relationships between soldiers and dogs.
Expectations: The ‘get’ from this documentary is a simple one to hope for, the question, however, is if it is really possible to achieve. We are out to discover the bond that exists between the unique teaming of a human soldier and their K9 partner. Three stories will be offered of a trio of canines, their training, their deployment, their missions and their relationship with their human counterparts. Their stories can only be told through the memories and testament of the servicemen in the partnership. Can they effectively express to the viewer the special bond that builds between such a pairing? I hope so. The trailer seems to indicate that they can.
Gut Reactions: Many of us have dogs in our lives; I for one, have never been without one. Most of us have a special love for that pet and are saddened when that presence is no longer there. Most of us, however, don’t have a canine that will save our lives or even seek out danger. That makes the K9 war dogs part of a special breed of dog regardless of the biological breed of that dog. Magnify the emotions you have for your four-footed friend and just imagine the intensity of that bond if you and that animal were placed in life-threatening dangerous situations in which the actions of each of you is depended on the other to survive. That has to be an intense bond that only veterans, enforcement personnel and certain disabled persons with canine assistance can experience.
I was hoping, upon watching this documentary, that I could somehow better understand that connection, though I knew I would never quite feel the magnitude of its intensity as the veterans here do. We are offered the story of U.S. Army Ranger Trent McDonald and Layka, U.S. Army Ranger John Dixon and Mika and U.S. Special Operations Command Dave Nielsen and Pepper. Each story is as different as the missions each team encountered. We learn that Layka was injured, Mika was retired and that Pepper was lost in action. Each serviceman talked through the history with their canine companion and what that partnership has meant to them and in two of the cases how separation from the dogs have affected them.
Aided by released intel and footage the men were able to articulate the whole experience in detail and leaves the viewer a bit touched to see the fondness these hardened men have for their canine partners. Sadly, only one story has a happy ending. Layka, minus a limb, retires beside his handler McDonald. Mika, suffering PTSD is removed from service and eventually retired to a family and never seen by Dixon again. Pepper’s handler, Neilsen, lives with the memory of leaving her behind lost or dead on the battlefield. Mika’s story raised a bit of controversy as Dixon was unable to obtain custody of her after she retired from police duty. He tracked her down but the family who had her appeared, the way the film was edited, to be completely uncooperative or sympathetic to Mika being reunited with Dixon or even to visit with him. Though I have spoiled some facts about the film here, my reveal does not take away from the emotive words of the vets who draw the viewer into their tour of duty and for the special loyalty, devotion and love they hold for the war dog at the end of the leash.
In Conclusion: WAR DOGS: A SOLDIER’S BEST FRIEND serves the purpose of showing the special connections people can have with a canine and also honors the K9 units that are respected & valued veterans of military service just as any human soldier.
Next: Catching up on our reviews we look at BALTIMORE RISING next. It follows activists, police officers, community leaders and gang affiliates, who struggle to hold Baltimore together in the wake of Freddie gray’s controversial death.