• PROOF:
  • July 10, 2014

Hero Dogs: More Than a Best Friend

Author
Sarah Joseph

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.

Photo of a little dog with shoes and a sweater on
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.

View the resulting video “Remembering the Vietnam War’s Combat Dogs.”

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.

Picture of a scout-dog handler from Vietnam with his dog
“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.

Picture of a dog with a party hat on sitting at a table with a cupcake in front of her
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.

Picture of a little dog with a mini stack of pancakes
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.

Picture of a sentry-dog handler from the U.S. Air Force with his dog
“…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.

Picture of a sentry-dog handler from the U.S. Army with his dog
“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.

Picture of Phillip Savage, a sentry-dog handler with the U.S. Air Force, with a dog in 1966
“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.

Follow Sarah Joseph and Minky on Instagram.

There are 24 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Richard and Tine Hille
    August 30, 2014

    To: John Langley.
    We were very much touched by John Langley singing ‘you are my sunshine’ , the same song we selected to remember one of our most beloved GSD’s. We completely share his thoughts.

  2. DEBASREE BANERJEE
    August 27, 2014

    I am such an ardent dog lover that I feel absolutely socially responsible for them. I live in a colony, where there are several stray ones (nearly 300), and some 100 of them are as familiar to me as some old friend. I distinctly remember one dog from the other and they all have their own names! I have never as yet kept a pet at home, because I am of the opinion that doing something for all these fellas is better than showering one with love and care. So, any time of the day, I try and pet them, feed them and talk to them. The one thing that constantly nags me is that the oldest pals among them are two girls who were some two years old when I joined here five years back. So, going by the average canine lifespan, they are going to be around some four to five years more. What would I do after they are gone? I am so heartbroken by this thought that I have panic attacks! But I am sure wherever they go, I would go there one day.

  3. Teresa Swartz
    August 17, 2014

    I am never without a dog. They are the best. I have a lab mix at this time and she is my companion for those late night walks. I love your article and your dog is precious.

  4. esperança carvalho
    July 27, 2014

    I am very touched by your story.
    It is so important for americans and the world to know what happened.
    These dogs where heroes alongside their best friends.
    Let’s not forget.
    Thank you!
    .

  5. Marian Jacklich
    July 26, 2014

    I enjoy reading all of your stories, and thank the men, women, and dogs who give us our freedom and general safety. Perhaps the military can organize “home stations” by state. They could ship the dogs to their home state and house them with local breed rescue groups, who are also generally qualified to evaluate the dog for home life and match for a good “forever home”. Many have foster homes already, and they will already let us know if a military rescue comes in. With Facebook these days, many of us would be honored to have a prior service dog! Right now our closest known center is in Texas, I live in Florida. Perhaps your vets could help? It would require military coordination in each state, and probably change to existing military procedures.

  6. Pearl Meredith
    July 25, 2014

    Hi there, I always love hearing about other people and their dogs. None of my experiences with mine, Jack the girl, can compare with these soldiers. But I do know that travelling across Canada with her in a van with my boyfriend, three friend, almost no money and no destination brought her and I closer than anything could. Being in crazy and sometimes life threatening situations with your pup strengthen the bond so much, it shows you how much you can rely on them when you need it and how much you are willing to give to someone you love.

  7. Jody Johnsen
    July 25, 2014

    I know a Vietnam vet also fighting cancer who recently acquired a dog. I have never seen him respond this well. Dogs and PTSD appear to be a great combination.

  8. Shimanti Datta
    July 25, 2014

    I luv ur pets image its really a golden story of ur life they r true frnd ‘s their luv is unconditional so luv them frever

  9. Karen
    July 25, 2014

    Maybe I need a dog as my companion ! I have now been single far to long…

  10. marge taasan
    July 25, 2014

    a very inspiring story and photographs…i wish you and minky more beautiful years together..

  11. sanskriti
    July 18, 2014

    when i return from my workplace..the best welcome is from him..my best buddy..the way he licks onto my hands and expects me to caress him..just melts me.. i love him..my pet is my life..

  12. Ivonne Covarrubias
    July 16, 2014

    I have a beloved son, he is my reason to be a better person, but my 3 beautyfull dogs, my 3 girls, they are the light of my life.

  13. Annie
    July 15, 2014

    I have loved many men in my life. And I have loved many friends, as well. The only true, pure, golden love I have ever experienced has been that magical unfathomable unconditional love of a dog. Fortunately, my life and my heart have been filled with the love of dogs. I could not live without one.

  14. Gary Tufto
    July 13, 2014

    1967 Vietnam, my first patrol we had a dog team with. We had been told that a trained dog like this could smell a Viet Cong hundreds of yards away. We walked and walked and finally were told to take a 5 minute break. I was next to the dog and his handler and the dog went over to a bush and laid down in the shade. A few minutes later, there was something in the bush moving. It turned out to be a VC Tax collector. The dog had laid down on him. I was very cautious of dogs capabilities after that.

  15. Mike Tyburski
    July 11, 2014

    Dogs are truly great companions, and have really helped people out, at home and at War! Nice Read!

  16. Melody Fox
    July 11, 2014

    p.s.: corrigenda…

    oops!
    …It made me a little sad, etc. etc.

  17. Melody Fox
    July 11, 2014

    Hi Sarah…I really enjoyed reading your story, very interesting. It made a little sad (especially about the dogs being euthanized), but it also brought some chuckles…Minky is a riot! and you dress her up in a comical way too! (those little winter boots…eheh ehhh lol (~_*) )

    Thank you for sharing!

    May you walk in sunshine,

    Melody Fox (aka the Princess of Rock)
    Love Peace Music

    (Journalist, DJ, Blogger)

  18. lijian
    July 11, 2014

    this is a great article and humans and dogs are borned to be friends.

  19. Luis gallardo
    July 11, 2014

    A best friend

  20. Luis gallardo
    July 11, 2014

    A mans best friends

  21. udeshna
    July 11, 2014

    Nice story,I love Dogs.

  22. Mary Wall
    July 10, 2014

    This made my day:) Thank You

  23. nassor juma
    July 10, 2014

    Nice story i luve it

  24. Balaji Viswanath
    July 10, 2014

    I dont like dogs , reason is i only LOVE them. Excellent Post. Thanks.

Add Your Comments

All fields required.