A new documentary commemorating the multi-purpose canines fighting alongside U.S. Special Operations forces downrange is now airing on HBO’s online service at hbogo.com.
The film — “War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend” — chronicles the the bonds between special operations troops and the canines they train and handle downrange.
While other military working dogs are trained for one specific task, these dogs serve with their handlers as human-animal combat teams. Fewer than one percent of all military canines are selected for the special operations mission, according to a press release about the documentary.
The film’s director, Deborah Scranton, highlighted the elite nature of the dogs and their human comrades in an interview with Military Times.
“Not to take anything away from the dogs trained at Lackland [AFB], which are single or dual purpose, but these are multi-service canines,” Scranton said. “They work off leash. They fast-rope. They do explosives detection. They do a wide array of things.”
The documentary chronicles the stories of several elite soldiers who formed special connections with their dogs while serving in combat.
“For me, profiling these handlers and the dogs that were with them represented a breadth of bond that was really important,” Scranton said. “What is most striking is these dogs are viewed as a teammate by soldiers and operators. It’s not just a dog to them.”
One special operator profiled in the film is Dave Nielsen. His dog Pepper was “a lap dog who became a beast of fury on target,” he said in the film.
Pepper went missing in Iraq while working to push an enemy soldier out of hiding, according to the film. The man was eventually killed, but Pepper was never found.
“She stopped and looked back at me. And I’m looking at her through my night vision and it was just ‘I love you, and I’m doing this for you,’” Nielson said in the film.
Pepper’s sacrifice isn’t lost on Nielsen, who remains grateful that his “daughter has a daddy because of Pepper,” he said. “I know that one day we’re going to meet up.”
Pepper is the only Special Operations canine to be classified as Missing in Action from the current wars.
Another soldier profiled in the film is former Army Ranger Trent McDonald. He lost his first canine companion — Benno — on their sixth deployment together.
Layka was his second dog. On her first mission with her new handler, Layka was hit by small arms fire. She took four AK-47 rounds to her chest at close range, completely destroying her right arm. That act of valor by Layka saved McDonald’s life, he said.
After multiple surgeries, McDonald adopted Layka, and she was featured on the June 2014 cover of National Geographic.
“At the end of the day, when everything fell apart, the only person who had me was her,” McDonald said.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.