They were moving fast, charging at a full sprint across the moon-lit palm grove. The handler and his dog were trying to keep up as the marine unit rushed toward its target, a building thought to be the base for insurgents responsible for a series of attacks in Mahmudiyah, Iraq.
Then Marine Corporal Mike Dowling saw a yellow-green glow, a pair of distinctly animal eyes. In the pale light he could make out a pack of stray dogs, which had caught their scent and were now zeroing in on his military working dog, Rex. Dowling managed to signal to another Marine, who stepped between Dowling and Rex and the advancing dogs. (Read “Dogs of War” in National Geographic magazine.)
The unit made it to the next fence, the last hurdle before the men reached the building. He had to get Rex over the razor-wire-lined barrier, and fast.
Watch Long Road Home, airing Tuesdays 10/9c on National Geographic Channel.
They’d prepared for this, but the high-intensity situation was not the happy, California afternoon training sessions at Camp Pendleton. Dowling pulled his 75-pound German shepherd back to give him as much momentum as possible and gave him the command to go over. Rex obeyed, launched at the wall, and cleared the top suffering only a minor flesh wound.
Mission completed, Dowling leaned down and praised the dog for a job well done. “Thank God, Rex. You did so good,” he told him.
It had been the pair’s first mission of their deployment—and the first time in three decades the U.S. military had used war dogs. When the United States evacuated its troops out of Vietnam in 1975, it literally abandoned its war-ready military working dogs.
But in the early days of the Iraq invasion, the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a crude tactical weapon, was hitting U.S. and coalition forces hard. Properly trained canines can detect IEDs, reigniting the military’s interest in utilizing dog teams.
War Dog “Guinea Pigs”
The military sent the first 30 dog teams into Iraq in the spring of 2004, a year after the invasion. Dowling and Rex, which were partnered together at Camp Pendleton, were one of the first to arrive.
With all the tactical lessons learned during the Vietnam years lost, those first military dog teams that went into Iraq were going into the unknown. As one commanding officer bluntly told Dowling, they were going to be the “guinea pigs.” (Read about Caesar, one of the first war dogs in the Pacific.)
Dowling and Rex spent the majority of their seven-month deployment based in Mahmoudiyah, a city located at the tip of an area known as “the Triangle of Death.”
Having Rex with him made all the difference, Dowling says. Intelligent and athletic, with a fantastic nose, Rex was a formidable detection dog. He was obedient dog and always listened to his handler.
The pair survived some of the worst of the early fighting—including the first battle of Fallujah. “It was like the whole edge of Fallujah started shooting at us,” recalls Downing, who wrote the book Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog and now lives in Los Angeles.
Rex passed away in 2012, having helped usher in what is eventually became a comprehensive and cohesive training program for dog teams deploying to combat theaters.
In the years since the Iraq War, the military has added hundreds of dog teams across its branches of service.
At the height of combat operations, from 2009 to 2012, the Department of Defense had around 400 to 500 dogs assigned in the CENTCOM deployed operations at any given time, according to Douglas Miller, military working dog program manager for the Department of Defense. (See: "Dog Held Hostage by Taliban Part of Long Line of Combat Canines.")
Including contract working dogs “would bring totals to over 600 teams—and that does not include any coalition nation dogs,” Miller says in an email.
While there is no database that tracks every single bomb or buried explosive unearthed by a dog in the nick of time—and no sound metric to quantify the number of lives saved—there’s no question that dogs like Rex were a game changer for U.S. and coalition forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Although the contributions of our explosive detector dogs may not be quantifiable,” Miller says, “they are an invaluable asset for freedom of movement of our ground patrols operating in the combat areas of operation.”
Man’s Best Friend
Military dogs also form deep bonds with their handlers, ones that ultimately help their human partners cope with the ghastliness of war. (See how a handler and her dog defied the Army's expectations.)
Even now, more than 13 years after their deployment, Dowling says he thinks back to that first night with Rex as “that holy shit moment when things are going down. The dogs know, they can sense the intensity and seriousness of the situation. Rex look[ed] to me for how to react.”
When a dog team is on a mission, it’s more than just the training between a dog and a handler that’s put to the test, he adds.
“In the end what it is, is trust.”
Rebecca Frankel is the executive editor of Foreign Policy’s print magazine. She wrote War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, a New York Times-bestselling book about dogs in combat. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her dog, Dyngo, a retired military working dog.