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Will we as humans ever stop being amazed at the compassion and loyalty of dogs? HBO’s new documentary makes the case that no, we’ll always have room for these stories. More importantly, the documentary proves that these stories need to be told, for the humans just as much as the dogs.
War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend spotlights four dogs trained for special ops (Benno, Layka, Mika, and Pepper), the rarest of the rare. For as much as it’s about the dogs, it’s the human counterparts (Trent, John, and Dave) the audience learns the most about. It’s one thing to recall your dog being happy to see you when you get home from work. It’s entirely different to hear a soldier describe a dog as having the same intensity and desire for action as he does.
Director Deborah Scranton presents the stories of these dogs in a matter of fact style that makes the dogs more heroic than any hagiography. That’s the only thing I could think after listening to Trent describe a fallen dog, Benno, and the military funeral he received. It’s only natural for people to over-inflate the impact their dogs have on their lives. But in the case of these war dogs, and Benno in particular, dogs who have lost limbs or their lives in the line of duty, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the effect they have on people. But one thing this Channing Tatum-produced documentary does so effectively that most stories about soldiers and war don’t is make that experience relatable to civilians.
Anyone who’s ever loved a pet will sympathize when Trent describes Benno running into danger without hesitation. Sure, your dog may not have run into a firefight, but you’ve seen your dog laser focus on something and go after it relentlessly. The stakes couldn’t be more different, but the behavior is recognizable. So too, is the companionship between humans and dogs on and off the battlefield. It’s almost surreal to hear a story about a man pulling out a ball to help calm a dog in the middle of a fight. So few of the dogs trained for combat are selected for special ops missions. They’re in the same elite and rarefied air as their human counterparts.
The bond between the dogs and the people transcends all circumstances. The parts of the documentary that hit the hardest happen right at home. Take Layka, for instance. After Benno’s death, Trent began working with Layka, until she got shot during a mission and lost a leg. As a retired dog, we watch Layka go through therapy and learn to live as a three-legged dog. We watch her go after her training equipment and see how playing with that stuff helps the dogs achieve their sense of normal.
It’s a hell of a thing to hear someone describe a dog suffering from PTSD. It makes too much sense that a war dog would suffer from a similar affliction as its handler. In that moment it made me question the whole idea of war dogs and police dogs and other service animals. The dogs are basically conscripted into doing the things humans can’t or won’t do. It speaks to the valor of the animals that they are able to take to their training and do this kind of work. You can argue that we’re just redirecting or harnessing the dog’s natural instincts, but that becomes a harder rationale to make after watching.
The documentary also focuses on Mika and John. Of the soldiers shown in War Dog, he appears to be the one dealing with the most issues. You can hear the struggle in his voice as he describes parts of his deployment. But you also hear his affection for Mika and understand what she means to him. When John gets shot during a mission, he ends up back home and Mika eventually retires from military service and begins work as a police dog. John tries to reconnect with Mika, but now she’s in a home with another family that loves her. While it shows the unique bonding power of a dog, the custody issue also reveals a desperation in John that is heartbreaking. He’s a man with a family and friends, but Mika is the thing that could potentially make him whole.
By the end War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend tells a familiar story through a unique lens. But the specificity of that lens makes the story more universal. It’s not just preaching to the choir. War Dog speaks to the value of companionship and the special effect that a pet, specifically a dog, can have on a person.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.