War Dog: A Soldier's Best Friend
This poignant documentary explores the unbreakable bond between multi-purpose K9s and their handlers.
After 9/11, the U.S. military began to specially select, train and deploy multi-purpose K9s to serve side-by-side with the nation’s most elite Special Operations soldiers, finding and disarming enemies while providing emotional support to troops in the bleakest hours.
From executive producer Channing Tatum and director Deborah Scranton (The War Tapes, HBO’s Earth Made of Glass), War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend highlights the intimate relationship between U.S. Special Operations soldiers and their K9s, who serve together as human-animal teams in combat.
Fewer than 1% of all military K9s are selected for Special Operations. Dedicated, fearless and highly trained, these canines and Special Operations forces are cut from the same cloth, forging unbreakable bonds and developing lethal fighting capabilities under the most grueling selection courses. In this world, where two-legged and four-legged warriors are considered equal members of a team built on loyalty, sacrifice and love, communication travels up and down the leash in a nameless language.
Paying tribute to their service, War Dog recognizes the invaluable impact of these K9s on their human counterparts. With unprecedented access, the film brings these extraordinary stories to life, featuring exclusive military footage, personal photos, on-the-ground combat and drone video surveillance footage, footage of war dogs training and in action, and revealing interviews with the handlers, who open up about the physical and emotional struggles they’ve faced.
Underscoring the unwavering loyalty and bravery that make these four-legged brothers- and sisters-in-arms heroes in their own right, War Dog profiles three relationships between soldiers and dogs:
U.S. Army Ranger Trent McDonald and Layka – On his 27th birthday, Trent lost Benno, his first canine partner, during a mission in Afghanistan. While mourning his loss, Trent instantly connected with young Layka. On her first deployment, Layka was shot by an enemy and the bullet tore through the ball of her joint, causing her to lose her leg from the shoulder, but Trent remained by her side as she was nursed back to health. The three-legged dog has since been honored for her service, and was featured on the cover of National Geographic. After serving in the war, Trent and Layka developed an even greater bond. “At the end of the day, when everything fell apart, the only person who had me was her,” he explains.
U.S. Army Ranger John Dixon and Mika – In 2006, John was one of four soldiers picked to start a Ranger dog program. There, he quickly developed a bond with Mika. But on John’s eighth deployment, and second deployment with Mika to Afghanistan, they walked into an ambush. John was hit and while being evacuated, the two were separated. Though reunited in the hospital room, John was sent home, and Mika’s PTSD prompted the decision to retire her from military service to a police department in Mississippi. “I just want that relationship back with her and I want to be able to help care for her…that would mean a lot for me, because I feel that I owe her that,” John explained. He hoped for a reunion like the one he witnessed between fellow former Ranger and dog handler Donovan Hunter, who was able to adopt Nuke, his own retired dog, and credits the canine with helping him make the transition back to civilian life. Despite multiple attempts, however, John was unsuccessful in reuniting with Mika, who died this month.
U.S. Special Operations Command Dave Nielsen and Pepper – “You’re a warrior I hold in the highest regard,” Dave reads from a letter he wrote to Pepper, his deceased canine partner. A decade ago, in the wake of Pepper’s death, Dave put mementos of her in a box. Now, as he goes through the items – a map of where she died, her picture, a napkin he used to bring pieces of steak from the chow hall to feed her – Dave remembers Pepper as “a lap dog who became a beast of fury on target.” The two developed a “bond that couldn’t be broken,” and she provided support for all the soldiers around her during hard times. During a deployment in Iraq, Pepper gave her life to push an enemy soldier out of hiding; the man was killed, but Pepper was never found. While he still mourns her death, Dave is grateful that his “daughter has a daddy because of Pepper…I know that one day we’re going to meet up.”
War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend is directed by Deborah Scranton; produced by Brett Rodriguez and Deborah Scranton; executive producers, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin and Peter Kiernan; co-producer, Colin Hudock; edited by Kevin Filippini; cinematography by P.H. O’Brien. For HBO: senior producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.