It was late—an indistinguishable, bleary-eyed hour. In front of me was a large dog, snapping his jaws so hard that his teeth gave a loud clack with each bark. His eyes were locked on me, desperate for the toy I was holding. But he wasn’t playing—he was freaking out.
As I cautiously held my ground, his bark morphed from a yelp to a shout. Then he gave a rumbling growl. That was when my trepidation gave way to something far more primal: fear.
This was no ordinary dog. Dyngo, a ten-year-old Belgian Malinois, had been trained to propel his 87-pound body toward insurgents, locking his jaws around them. He’d served three tours in Afghanistan, weathering grenade blasts and firefights. This dog had saved thousands of lives. Now he was in my apartment in Washington, DC. Just 72 hours earlier, I had traveled across the country to retrieve Dyngo from Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix so he could live out his remaining years with me in civilian retirement.
That first Arizona night, Dyngo sat on my hotel bed waiting for me. When I got under the covers, he stretched across the blanket, his weight heavy and comforting against my side. As I drifted off to sleep, I felt his body twitch, and I smiled: Dyngo is a dog who dreams.
The next morning, I gave him a toy and went to shower. When I emerged from the bathroom, it was like stepping into a henhouse massacre. Feathers floated in the air. Fresh rips ran through the white sheets. In the middle of the bed was Dyngo, panting over a pile of shredded pillows. Throughout the morning, his rough play left scratches where his teeth had broken the skin through my jeans.
On the flight home, Dyngo was allowed to sit at my feet in the roomy first row, but he soon had bouts of vomiting in between his attempts to shred the Harry Potter blanket I’d brought. The pilot announced Dyngo’s military status, inspiring applause from the whole cabin. When we reached my apartment, we both collapsed from exhaustion. It would be our last bit of shared peace for many months.
I met Dyngo in 2012 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. I was working on a book, War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History, and Love, and had heard about how Dyngo had saved many lives in Afghanistan. His bravery had earned his handler, S.Sgt. Justin Kitts, a Bronze Star.
In early 2011, Kitts and Dyngo boarded a helicopter on their way to a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Dyngo wore a wide choke chain and a vest that said MWD Police K-9 to indicate that he was a military working dog.
The plan for the day was familiar. The platoon from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division would make its way on foot to nearby villages, connecting with community elders to find out whether Taliban operatives were planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the area. Kitts and Dyngo walked in front to clear the road ahead. After six months of these scouting missions, Kitts trusted that Dyngo would keep him safe.
They were in a grape field a little more than a mile outside the outpost when Dyngo’s ears perked up, his tail stiffened, and his sniffing intensified. It wasn’t a full alert, but Kitts knew Dyngo well enough to know he’d picked up the odor of an IED. He signaled the platoon leader. “There’s something over there, or there’s not,” Kitts said. “But my dog is showing me enough. We should not continue going that way.”
The rest of the soldiers took cover while Kitts walked Dyngo to the other end of the path to clear a secure route out. They’d gone barely 300 yards when Kitts saw Dyngo’s nose start to work faster. His ears perked and his tail stopped. He was on odor again. If Dyngo was right, there were two bombs: one obstructing each path out of the field. They were trapped. Then the gunfire started. Kitts grabbed Dyngo and pulled him down to the ground, his back against a mud wall. The next thing Kitts heard was a whistling sound, high and fast, flying past them at close range. Just feet from where they were sitting, an explosion shook the ground. Dyngo whimpered and whined, his thick tail tucked between his legs. The grenade explosion had registered much deeper and louder to his canine ears. Knowing he had to distract him, Kitts grabbed a twig, and dog and handler engaged in a manic tug-of-war until Dyngo relaxed. Then Kitts dropped the branch and returned fire over the wall.
It turned out that Dyngo’s nose had been spot-on. There were IEDs buried in both places. The insurgents had planned to box the unit into the grape field and attack them there.
Altogether, during their nine months in Afghanistan, Kitts and Dyngo spent more than 1,000 hours patrolling. They discovered more than 370 pounds of explosives. The military credited them with keeping more than 30,000 U.S., Afghan, and coalition forces safe.
The United States has deployed thousands of dogs to combat zones. Depending on the war, their tours have lasted months to years. When it’s time for war dogs to retire, the law specifies that they should be released into the care of their former handlers, if possible. The second option is law-enforcement agencies, and the third is “other persons capable of humanely caring for these dogs.”
According to Douglas Miller, the former manager of the DOD Military Working Dog program, retired war dogs are in higher demand than they were a decade ago. “When I first took this job, in 2009, there were about 150 people maybe on the list,” he says. “That list has now grown to about 1,200 or more people.” But not every civilian anticipates the adjustments the dogs will have to make.
When we met, Kitts told me he’d always hoped he could bring Dyngo home, but his oldest daughter was allergic to dogs. He commented that he was impressed with how much Dyngo, usually stoic around new people, seemed to like me. When he laid his head in my lap, I felt the tug of love. Kitts asked whether I would consider taking Dyngo when he was set to retire.
For me, adopting Dyngo would mean adopting new schedules, responsibilities, and costs, including a move to a larger, more expensive dog-friendly apartment. The list of reasons to say no was inarguably long. Even so, over time, that little feeling tugged harder. I weighed all the pros and cons and then disregarded the cons. On May 9, 2016, I was on a plane to Phoenix.
“You sound scared.”
I’d called Kitts as soon as I heard Dyngo growl. He counseled me through that first night, intuiting that what Dyngo needed to feel safe was a crate. My friend Claire had a spare one and helped me put it together. We’d barely put the door in place before Dyngo launched himself inside, his relief palpable and pitiable.
The next day, and during the rest of the first week, I had one objective: to wear Dyngo out. I chose the most arduous walking routes, the steepest leaf-laden trails. The pace was punishing.
Other challenges presented themselves. Dyngo had arrived with scabs and open sores on his underbelly. Tests revealed a bacterial infection that required antibiotics and medicated shampoo baths. Since I could not lift Dyngo into the bathtub, I would shut us both into the small bathroom and do the best I could with a bucket and washcloth, leaving inches of water and dog hair on the floor.
Then there was Dyngo’s nearly uncontrollable drive for toys—or anything resembling a toy. Instilled in him by the rewards he’d received during his training, this urge sent him after every ball, stuffed animal, or abandoned glove we passed. The distant echo of a basketball bouncing filled me with dread. My desperation grew when Dyngo began to twist himself like a pretzel to clamp down on the fur and flesh above his hind leg, gripping himself in rhythmic bites, a compulsion known as flank sucking.
Struggling for order, I set up a rigid Groundhog Day–like routine. Each day, we would wake at the same hour, eat meals at the same hour, travel the same walking paths, and sit in the same spot on the floor together after every meal.
I don’t remember when I started to sing to him, but under the streetlamps on our late-night walks, I began a quiet serenade of verses from Simon & Garfunkel or Peter, Paul & Mary. I have no idea whether anyone else ever heard me. In my mind, there was only this dog and my need to calm him.
One night that summer, with the DC heat at its most oppressive, I called my father. I told him things weren’t getting better. “Give it time,” he said. “You’ll end up loving each other, you’ll see.” When Dyngo would pull away from me, straining against my hold on the leash, I found that hard to believe.
Sometimes, when Dyngo stared at me from behind the bars of his borrowed crate, I wondered whether he was thinking back to his days of leaping out of helicopters. Did he miss the sound of gunfire? Did he crave the adrenaline rush of hopping over walls and the struggle of human limbs between his teeth? What if, in my attempt to offer him a life of love and relaxation, I had stolen his sense of purpose?
Military dogs get to a point where they’re living for their jobs, just as human service members do, says Matt Hatala, a former Marine handler who deployed to Afghanistan. “That has been their identity—that is it—for years and years. And when you get out, you kinda go, ‘What the heck do I do now?’ And you can never really find that replacement.
“That dog’s been through situations you’re not going to be able to understand and might not be able to handle,” Hatala continues. He acknowledges that things weren’t always easy after he brought home Chaney, his former canine partner. The black Lab was still ready to work, but there wasn’t any work to do. Chaney developed a fear of thunderstorms—which was strange, Hatala says, because he had never before been scared of thunder, or even of gunfire or bombs.
Among the former handlers who’d worked with Dyngo was S.Sgt. Jessie Keller, who had arranged the adoption. As Dyngo and I struggled to adapt to our new life, Keller offered me some thoughtful suggestions. But something changed when Keller sent me a text message—“If u don’t feel u can keep him please let me know and I will take him back.” In some ways, this was the thing I most wanted to hear. But a resolve took hold: I was not going to give up this dog.
During our early months together, Dyngo admirably maintained his military duties. As we made our way down the hall from my apartment, he would drop his nose down to the seam of each door we passed and give it a swift but thorough sniff. He was still hunting for bombs. Every time I clipped on his leash, he was ready to do his job, even if, in his mind, I wasn’t ready to do mine. He’d turn his face up, expectant and chiding. And when I didn’t give a command, he would carry on, picking up my slack.
I tried to navigate him away from the line of cars parked along the leafy streets, where he tried to set his nose toward the curves of the tires. How could I convey to him that there were no bombs here? How could I make him understand that his nose was now entirely his own?
Over the next nine months or so, Dyngo gradually learned to let his guard down and settle into domesticity, and I adjusted to life with a retired war dog.
It has now been more than three years since I brought Dyngo home. He has learned how to play, maybe for the first time, without anxiety. The borrowed crate was dismantled two years ago. His flank sucking has all but disappeared. All the rugs lie in place, the couch cushions and pillows sit idle and unthreatened. Dyngo and I are rarely more than a few feet apart—he follows me around, my lumbering guardian. He is now truly my dog.
Every once in a while, as I run my thumb along the velvety inside of his left ear, I see the faint blue of his ID tattoo, #L606. He exhales a low grumble, but it’s one of deep contentment.
I can take Dyngo out without worry now. He is gentle with dogs who are smaller or frailer than he is. He has even befriended a feisty black cat.
Dyngo’s dozen years of rough-and-tumble life are finally catching up with him. His stand-at-attention ears have fallen into a crumple. The marmalade brown of his muzzle is swept with swirls of white and gray. He is missing more than a few teeth and walks with a bit of a limp.
Early in 2018, Dyngo and I drove up to my parents’ home in Connecticut. It was an unusually balmy day in February, and we rode with the windows down, Dyngo’s head raised into the slanting sun. He made friends with the neighbors’ dogs, dragged branches across the muddy yard, and took long evening walks with my father in the downy snow.
Back home again, when we pulled into our building’s circular driveway after two weeks away, I looked on as he jumped down onto the concrete. His face changed as he reoriented himself to the surroundings, finding his footing along the uneven sidewalks and making a beeline toward his favorite tree spot. As we entered my apartment, he nosed his way inside, then pranced back and forth between his bed and bowls. He danced toward me, his eyes filled to the brim with an expression that required no interpretation: We’re home! We’re home!