Rated Reads

Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca

by Maria Goodavage

Rated: Mild

The various United States military branches have been using dogs for decades. Some were trained to sniff out bombs, others corpses, and some were simply trained to assist in guard duty. In the early days of America’s armed involvement in Iraq, the new threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) required something completely different. These traps were buried or otherwise hidden, making them impossible to find until a soldier detonated one and killed or injured himself and anyone nearby. In response, the Specialized Search Dog (SSD) was envisioned, and animals trained to sniff out a wide variety of explosives were born.

I was surprised to learn that these dogs receive no training whatsoever until they are almost a year old and are assigned to an initial handler. This person is responsible for teaching the dog everything from learning to walk on a leash to obeying voice commands to locating and signaling when she or he smells specific explosives. I was not surprised to learn that many of these dogs are extremely high energy and very difficult to train and keep under control. Most are German shepherd or Belgian malinois mixes and are highly intelligent, thus requiring a lot of effort to teach them to maintain focus.

Chris Willingham is assigned Lucca, a female shepherd/malinois mix, and even though he is an experienced dog handler and trainer, he states that until Lucca came along, he had never imagined a dog could be so smart. Before the pair deployed to Iraq the first time, they were already doing demonstrations for visiting dignitaries and helping other handlers to improve their skills.

Willingham and Lucca would complete two full tours, saving countless lives from the hidden IEDs, earning the full trust of even the most skeptical soldiers. There are even a few accounts detailed of her locating items (and persons) of interest that she was not specifically trained to do. Her natural disposition was also a huge calming influence wherever she was assigned, and she was instrumental in helping reduce tension among new soldiers going out on patrol for the first time.

Eventually, Willingham was no longer able to serve in the canine corps, and it became necessary for Lucca to be assigned a second handler, Juan Rodriguez. Willingham assisted with Lucca’s transition, and, once again, she was flawless in her abilities to find explosives before they could harm anyone, until one day in March 2012.

What follows next is the story not only of Lucca’s recovery, but of a military organization with much more common sense than in previous decades, and of soldiers prepared to handle emergencies for their canine comrades as well as their fellow humans. In fact, Lucca not only survives; she goes on to help heal the emotional wounds of soldiers all over the world and of multiple nationalities. She exhibits the finest qualities of a survivor, a companion, and a Marine.

Rated: Mild. Occasional instances of coarse language.

— Reviewed by Craig Smith

Craig Smith is chief medical officer of Tacoma Cat Hospital. In addition to providing book reviews on Rated Reads, he podcasts about feline health issues through iTunes and www.tacomacat.com.

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  • Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca
  • by Maria Goodavage
  • Rated: Mild
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Reviewer: