By Allie Waxman

Director Deborah Scranton on The Heroism of Four-Legged Soldiers

Director Deborah Scranton is no stranger to making films about conflict, but when she saw Layka’s June 2014 National Geographic cover, she knew there was a story to tell about canine soldiers. The director dove into the the world of multipurpose canines and the soldiers they work alongside, uncovering touching stories of bravery, loyalty and friendship. Here’s what she learned, and what she hopes will come from the doc.

These dogs are different from typical military working dogs.

“The multipurpose canines, which are the ones in the film, can do so many things,” Scranton explained. “They fast rope [rappel from helicopters] out with the guys, they do working perimeters, they also detect explosives and fight. We’ve seen stories before about dual-purpose dogs, but no story has been made about these multipurpose canines.”

The soldiers and dogs share a powerful bond.

“The handler and dog become one and emotion travels up and down the leash,” said the director. “It’s this invisible, but very potent, language in terms of their relationship of them as a fighting unit.”

The dogs are highly trained and highly intelligent.

The dogs work off-leash, proving their independence. “It’s not the guys giving a command. The dog is thinking; the dog is its own soldier,” said Scranton. “It’s as if it’s another member of the team who just happens to have four legs.” She continued, “Not every soldier can become a ranger; it’s the same for these dogs. Less than 1 percent are selected.”

Pepper’s story is the ultimate display of “selfless love.”

The story that moved Scranton the most was that of U.S. Special Operations Command Dave Nielsen about Pepper looking back before she ran to do her job. “She really did die to save her teammates,” said Scranton. “She knew where that bad guy was and she went back and got him.”

All of the dogs in the film are female.

“I don’t make a big deal about it in the film, but these are female dogs. The female dogs are 12-15 pounds lighter, so it’s not that they’re picking the biggest dog, they’re picking the smartest, best soldier,” Scranton remarked. “They’re smart and agile. They’ve earned that respect.”

Scranton hopes the film will connect soldiers and civilians.

“Less than half a percent of our nation [actively] serves,” noted Scranton. “I’ve been doing war films in conflict zones for a while and my job is to help bridge the disconnect between those who know soldiers and those who don’t. I hope a lot more people feel that they know a soldier.”

U.S. Special Operations Command Dave Nielsen's Letter to Pepper