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Hero Dogs: More Than a Best Friend

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Picture of John, a sentry-dog handler with a dog, Vogey

I have, on two separate occasions, stepped in front of moving vehicles to protect my dog. Once I defended her bare-handed against another dog that had escaped its yard. I like to imagine that, given the opportunity, my dog would do the same for me. Sometimes, walking her alone at night, I wonder what would happen if we met an unsavory character in some back alley. Would my dog’s mere presence discourage a would-be attacker? Would she attract help with her barking? If it came down to it, would she defend me, tooth and claw?

The reality is that all of these are unlikely outcomes since my dog, Minky, is a 12-pound Brussels Griffon. She has, despite her Napoleon complex, a fairly non-threatening bark, and– thanks to her breed-characteristic undershot jaw–an even less intimidating bite. She has a propensity for making friends with strangers, from the homeless to the postman. Passersby call her an Ewok nearly every time we leave the house. A small child once identified her as a cat.

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Minky in her winter boots Photograph by Sarah Joseph

Despite her shortcomings, Minky is my best friend; the closest thing I’ve had, so far, to a child. I think my family legitimately worries about what will happen to me when Minky inevitably passes away. As a video producer for National Geographic magazine’s recent cover story on Hero Dogs, I had a difficult task ahead of me. I would be interviewing a number of canine handlers who had served in Vietnam alongside military working dogs. Several of these men had lost a dog in combat, and all of them had to part with their dogs when their tour of duty ended (while a soldier’s commitment was typically one year, the dogs remained active as long as they were healthy enough to do so). It wasn’t until years after the war ended that they learned the fate of the dogs they’d been forced to leave behind: Of the more than 4,000 dogs sent to serve in Vietnam, only about 200 returned to the States; the rest were euthanized or turned over to the Vietnamese.

Decades later, the veterans remain—understandably—very emotional about what happened to their beloved partners. In order to capture their stories effectively, I’d have to put my own emotions aside and maintain composure during the interviews. Even more daunting was the fact that it was my responsibility to ask the probing questions that would bring these painful memories to the surface. This required earning the trust of the veterans in a short period of time. I hoped that our shared love of dogs would provide a common ground, but I also knew that the veterans had been through something entirely different with their dogs than anything I’d ever experienced. I worried my relationship with Minky would seem trivial by comparison.

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“All the pets you have before and after, I mean, you love them, they’re just family members, you know, you love them as much as you can, but they are not life and death.”– Johnny Mayo, scout-dog handler, U.S. Army

This came into sharp focus pretty quickly, thanks to my iPhone. It’s generally a short trip from the beginning of any conversation about dogs to presenting a photo, and like any proud pet parent, my dog is the background image on my phone. But perhaps more unusually, my dog happens to be wearing a pink party hat, standing in front of a pink “doggy” cupcake.

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Minky on her 6th birthday Photograph by Sarah Joseph and Jon Betz

I breathed a quick sigh of relief when the veterans chuckled at the picture. Meanwhile, I had asked the veterans to bring pictures of their dogs for us to scan and include in our videos. Many of these men and women are lucky to have even a handful of photos with their combat dogs. As Raymond “Pete” Peters, a scout-dog handler for the U.S. Army in Vietnam, told me, “Being one of the first ones over there, nobody had cameras. A camera at that time, a 35mm, weighed the same probably as three magazines of ammunition. Which would you carry, you know?” I, by contrast, take literally dozens of photos of Minky on my phone every week. Most of my Instagram followers are fellow dog owners, and the images that tend to be the most popular are the silliest.

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Minky with a mini stack of pancakes Photograph by Sarah Joseph

Fortunately, I learned quickly during my time with the veterans that—even in the extreme circumstances of war—everyone has a different way of relating to their dog, and just like people, every dog is different. While some of the handlers favored aggressive dogs, others, like John Langley, preferred more friendly and inquisitive dogs. John worked with several dogs during his service, but one in particular was the “apple of his eye.” As someone who often catches myself having full-blown (albeit one-sided) conversations with my dog, I especially related to John, who would joke with and sing to his beloved Vogey to help pass the time.

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“…Vogey and I would sing…it would break the boredom. So it was fun. I tried to make it fun, because 95% of the time, it was boring.”—John Langley, sentry-dog handler, U.S. Air Force

Many of the handlers talked about the sense of comfort their dogs provided during the war, both to them and other soldiers. Similarly, when I moved cross-country to start working at National Geographic six years ago, I brought two suitcases—and Minky.

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“Going to Vietnam was traumatic enough at the time. It was, kind of believed that everybody who went to Vietnam was going to die there. And being able to take my best friend, take my dog with me…It’s like going with a family member into a strange area.”—Richard Steinberg, sentry-dog handler, U.S. Army

When I’ve gone through difficult times in my personal life, Minky has been my rock, the one constant who is there every day, who never gets tired of listening—or at least doesn’t let on if she does. She forces me to be less selfish—to put someone else’s needs before my own. And she brings me, and others (through silly photos or simply walking down the street), a great deal of joy.

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“Not only did [Shep] do his sentry duty, like any of the dog handlers will tell you, they listen well. So he, you could tell him about the good times, the bad times and the hard times, and they are always good for a hug.”—Phillip Savage, sentry-dog handler, U.S. Air Force

The reality is that Minky will probably never save my life. And thanks to the brave human and canine soldiers that defend our country, I’ll never experience combat firsthand. Still, the veterans reminded me that whether they’re alerting you to the presence of an enemy or just providing some much needed comic relief, there’s no substitute for a dog. I’m very fortunate to have my own little hero dog waiting for me at home.

All photographs courtesy of the subject unless otherwise noted.

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