Veterans Day Bonus -- The Story of Rex
Excerpted from Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America's Canine Heroes, by Maria Goodavage (This version may be slightly different from the final book version, as it is from my files but it's very close.)
Rex… and Cinte
In civilian life, the idea is that you stay with your dog until death do you part. Unfortunately, too many people don’t, which is why shelters are so overcrowded, but that’s another story.
By contrast, in military life, handlers play a game of musical canines. They get assigned a dog for a set period – a deployment, a year, a few years, depending on their specialty and luck of the draw – but it’s generally not a pairing that lasts a dog’s lifetime. Handlers switch dogs, dogs switch handlers, all depending on the jobs that must be done.
Kennel masters often try to match dog to handler, but sometimes a handler gets stuck with whatever dog happens to be around and available, and the match can be downright dreadful. Some pairings stay that way for the endurance. But as any dog lover can attest to, dogs have their ways of working themselves into people’s hearts. Military dogs are no exception.
When Army Sergeant Amanda Ingraham learned she had been assigned her to work with Rex L274 in 2008, she was aghast. “Of all the dogs, why him?” she wondered.
The Army had tried to pair the 4-year-old German shepherd up with other handlers, but no one could work with him. You had to yell to get him to do anything. He chased everything that moved, from wild mules in Arizona to rabbits in Texas to squirrels in Virginia. Being a Specialized Search Dog (SSD), he worked off leash, and chasing critters while looking for IEDs was not an option.
But Ingraham seemed to be the only person the dog would listen to even remotely while training. For instance, once during night training, Rex was doing nothing she asked, and in frustration she yelled, “Good god, you can’t even SIT!” And he sat. It was a rare command that he would obey. Another time, she told him to come to her. He was on a footbridge 12 feet above her. Most normal dogs would run off a footbridge to get to their handler. Not Rex. He jumped straight down 12 feet to his sergeant.
The man in charge said the dog was hers.
Specialized search dogs stay with a handler longer than most other dogs stay with their handlers. Stints of four or five years together are not uncommon. After spending a couple of months with Rex, Ingraham was counting the days until her contract with the army was up, especially after the dog lead her dangerously close to faux explosives. And more than once. “I’d be right on top of it by the time I saw it. He showed no change of behavior like he’s supposed to. I’d have been dead if it were the real deal.” She was almost certain she would not re-enlist in 18 months. She couldn’t bear the thought of spending more time with this wretched dog.
The two eventually headed to Yuma Proving Ground for predeployment training. They were to go to Iraq together. The notion made Ingraham queasy.
One day Rex once again led her right on top of another IED, and she was yelling at him, pushing him on to sniff out more and do it right. He refused to do anything. He just sat there, as if on strike. “I was yelling as much as I could yell. I said ‘What’s the matter with you? You want me to ask you nicely?’ “ She has no idea where the words came from. The very notion struck her as ridiculous, since he had never responded to anything but yelling.
But she gave her next command in the kind of polite tone you reserve for speaking with people who are listening. “Rex, get on," she told him, which meant for him to go out away from her and search. He did just what she asked. “Get over,” and he’d go left or right, depending on her arm signal. “This way!” and he came bounding back to her. She was shocked. Thrilled. He looked proud. She would rarely have to raise her voice again. They had come to a meeting of minds. Whether handler broke through to dog or dog broke through to handler didn’t matter. There was common ground. They were starting to speak the same language.
That night, Ingraham let Rex sleep on her bed in the hotel. She’d heard it was good for creating a bond, but she’d never felt like letting the big beast up there. Rex weighed 96 pounds. Ingraham often wondered how she would manage to lift him over her shoulder, as handlers sometimes have to do downrange. It was the first time anyone had offered Rex such a privilege. He didn’t know much about beds. He fell out of bed almost immediately. He decided that sleeping cross-ways was a safer option, and Ingraham couldn’t budge him. So she joined him, head on one side of the bed, feet at the other.
“The next day, he was like a brand new dog,” she says. That day Rex was the star of the school. He went an astounding 800 meters from Ingraham during one exercise and gave a big enough change of behavior that she could see what he was doing. Instead of barely showing a subtle tail movement, he wagged hard when he found the explosive. She didn’t have to yell at him once. No one could believe it was the same dog.
In a few weeks they deployed to Iraq, supporting various units and missions over the coming months. His nose was strong and his drive to sniff out explosives stronger. Units frequently requested his help because he was such a good worker, and also because he was big, and not the traditional breed of dog that works as a Specialized Search Dog. Those are usually sporting breeds, like Labs, since the job doesn’t require a biting dog, just a good sniffer.
Enemy soldiers aren’t terribly scared of Labs, and for good reason. Around the world they’re seen as the friendly dogs they generally are. Some Labs might do serious damage if a handler were in trouble, but these dogs don’t have the ferocious reputation German shepherds and Malinois do. To have a huge shepherd like Rex doing the job of a Lab just added to his popularity among the platoons. Just the sight of him might send the bad guys running.
But what insurgents didn’t know was that as big and scary as Rex looked, he was a gentle giant. He had failed out of aggression training at Lackland because anytime he bit someone wearing protective gear during practice, and they yelled or screamed in response, he immediately let go and seemed to look concerned and sad. You could imagine him saying, “Sorry young fellow. I thought we were just having a bit of fun. I hope you’re going to be all right.” Nevertheless, when he broke off a tooth during an aggression exercise, the vet replaced it with a glistening titanium tooth, to match his formidable persona.
But gradually people at Lackland realized this dog was about as aggressive as a deer. “The only thing he used that titanium tooth for was eating his food,” says Ingraham.
Rex’s sensitivity made him an informal therapy dog for deployed troops. “He’d always find the one soldier who was having a hard day and hang out with them,” says Ingraham. But his favorite therapy was to cheer up down soldiers by getting them to play with a water bottle. After all, he liked playing with water bottles, so it would seem natural that they would too. He’d run up and bonk them with a water bottle (empty or full, it didn’t matter). Or he’d sit next to him crunching the bottle and periodically banging it against the bummed soldier. Eventually the soldier would take the bait, and a grand game of tug-of-war or a big chase would ensue.
His sensitivity also proved helpful in scouting work – something he came by accidentally. One day Rex was with a platoon in a field with grass much taller than his head, and was sniffing for explosives. Ingraham and the other soldiers got word from a drone above that someone was hiding in the field. A few minutes later, Rex yelped and ran back to Ingraham. It was a behavior she had seen during training, when someone had hidden and startled him. She knew someone was hiding in the grass and had startled him. “I was able to tell a couple of people with me where the man was in front of us, and how many steps to the left or right he was.” They apprehended him, and Rex got a tennis ball. Another time he sniffed at something in a barn the same way, and looked at Ingraham with such a scared expression that she knew there was someone hiding under the hay.
It wasn’t heroic, but it got the job done.
But gentle as he was, he would have killed for Ingraham. She was climbing out of a ravine when she lost footing and fell to the ground. An Iraqi interpreter reached down to help her and was leaning down close to her. Rex took this the wrong way and charged the man, growling and barking ferociously. She was able to call off Rex before he did any harm. Rex would even stand guard at the shower trailer, barking protectively while she was in there.
She credits their successes on missions and on base to knowing each other so well. “We wouldn’t have been able to do half of what we did without the bond. I knew almost every move he made. I could read almost every emotion in his face. You learn to read everything, and they learn to read everything about you. It got to the point where if I sat, he sat. If I lay down, he lay down.”
Rex was still a stubborn dog with others. He wouldn’t take commands from anyone else, no matter how nicely they asked or how much they yelled and came at him to make him flinch. He was a one-handler dog. “Sometimes if someone told him to do something and he was with me, he’d just open his mouth and wag his tail and look back at me like he was laughing at them.”
While deployed, Rex and Ingraham were together day in, day out, and he spent the night on her bed, or on an extra bunk next to her, or curled up on some bedding below her bed. During the day, if she happened to be working at a desk while at FOB Warhorse (one of the better living conditions during their deployment), Rex would sleep on a giraffe bed Ingraham had bought online. Rex is probably the only deployed dog who ever slept on a dog bed with a giraffe print and a squeaky giraffe-shaped head sticking out of the top. The shepherd liked to play with its head for a while, chomping it to make it squeak, until he got tired and plopped down for a good nap.
Every night before bedtime, Ingraham would lean over her dog and tell him, “I love you Rex. Everything from your big feet to your stinky breath.” And he’d drift off to sleep.
* * *
Early in their deployment, Ingraham decided that she would re-enlist. If all went well, she would be able to retire at about the same time Rex would be retiring, after a couple more rotations together in Afghanistan. “I would adopt him and he was going to live on my couch in Waverly, West Virginia.” It was a perfect plan.
Their Iraq deployment done, they went back to the states, where they were stationed once again at Fort Myer, small army base next to the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It was very hard for her to leave Rex back in the kennels every night. She provided him with a dog bed (something most dogs don’t get, partly because so many would chew it up), and visited him frequently, even on days off.
While there, they went on some presidential missions together, making sure the coast was clear for the Chief Executive and his entourage. At one event at Fort Myer, scores of wounded warrior soldiers and veterans showed up. It was one of those times Ingraham realized what a special dog she had.
Although the dogs don’t search people at these events, any wheelchairs have to be searched, because they can’t go through scanners. “It’s sensitive, because you know what they’ve been through.” Of the three dogs present, Rex was chosen for the duty because of his gentle nature.
“The first wheelchair came in, and instead of searching, Rex just walked up to the man sitting in it and laid his head on the man’s lap and looked up to him.” Ingraham realized this was Rex’s way of signaling to her that there was nothing to worry about with this one. After Ingraham assured the soldier the dog was friendly, he gave Rex a pat on the head and moved on. This happened with every person who came in a wheelchair. Rex even gave soldiers on crutches special attention, but essentially ignored the uninjured. “He knew the wounded warriors. As always with him, he seemed to sense who needed the most care. I was so proud watching him.”
* * *
In early 2011 Ingraham got word that they would be heading to Germany for a few months, with the idea that a deployment to Afghanistan would follow. She was excited that soon she’d be able to spend 24/7 with Rex again, even if meant their lives would be at stake with every step they took outside the wire.
But on March 16 she went to check on him in his kennel and right away she noticed something was amiss. There was foam in his water bowl and the dog didn’t look right. She took him outside, where he passed up food, which was not like him. He made efforts to go to the bathroom, but he couldn’t. She let him off leash, and instead of running exuberantly, he lay down by the fence. She took his tennis ball and threw it down the field, but he didn’t move. She began to realize that something was terribly wrong.
She took the dog straight to the vet where he was given several tests and screenings, including x-rays and ultrasound. Bloodwork was done. Yet everything came back OK.
They returned to the kennel, where she watched him all night. “I tried not to panic, because he picks up on everything I do.” Around 9 a.m. his heart rate jumped, and he started throwing up. The vets, who had left base, came back for him. They did all the tests again and still couldn’t see anything. The vet called several different vets in the area, and they decided to send him to Fort Belvoir, about 40 minutes away. There’s a surgeon there. More tests there, same results. The surgeon said let’s go in and see what’s going on inside.
Ingraham opted to stay in the room with her dog. “You’d rather see everything that happens to your dog.” She could read the vet’s face before the vet said anything. Something had twisted deep inside of Rex*, and his colon was grey, essentially dead. The vet worked tirelessly to save her dog, but in the end, there was nothing more he could do.
The veterinarian decided at that point that Rex would not come out of his anesthesia. Ingraham burst into tears. The vet administered the dose of euthanasia solution. Everyone left the room so she could be alone with him. She tried to keep it together, for his sake. She kissed him, stroked his head, and talked to him like old times.
Then she leaned down, snuggled into his fur, and told him, “I love you Rex. Everything from your big feet to your stinky breath.” And he drifted off.
Less than a month later, and still raw from the loss of Rex, Ingraham learned that the Army had assigned her to work with a new dog, Cinte M401. She, again, was aghast. “Of all the dogs, why him?” she once again wondered.
She had seen the Belgian Malinois in the kennels and had been grateful he was not her dog. The 4-year-old dog was clearly slow on the uptake. Much to her dismay, he bonded with her almost immediately, following her around, and always wanting to nuzzle up to her. But she didn’t want him touching her. She was still aching from losing Rex. And besides, this dog was just annoying.
Her mother said to give it time, said she thought this sounded like a nice dog, but Ingraham knew she’d never like this dog.
In autumn of 2011, when we last communicated, Ingraham and Cinte had been in Germany for a couple of months. And as her mother predicted, Cinte was starting to grow on Ingraha. “His quirkiness has found a place in my heart.”
Here’s what she wrote me about this dog:
“He's a bit skittish so every day and noise is a challenge full of new things for him. For example he was searching a box and he touched it and it moved, so he jumped like a cat onto a cart next to him as if he’d never seen a box move before.
“As he searches, every time he finds what he's looking for he gets this shocked look on his face that seems to say, ‘OMG did you know that was there?’ Also he tends to over think things as simple as a command of sit. As he debates what exactly I am trying to get him to do you can place your hand on his head and feel it getting warmer as he tries to decide his actions.
“Then, there are children. He is terrified to the core. Even if the children are at a distance he will hide behind me or try to run as far away from them as he can, often without looking where he is going and running into anything in his path. He is a challenge but everyday holds new surprises and it’s never dull.
“Cinte is very clumsy and careless when he runs or fetches his toy and has repeatedly smashed his snout, so we are looking to make sure some of his issues aren't medical. He's a great dog and knows his job and loves doing it, but he seems to have a harder time doing it when compared to the other working dogs. His nose is weaker than any of his breed we have seen, but he seems to know and works harder. In a deployment situation I would trust him he has no problems finding the mass odors that IEDs and other caches, but he may miss a single magazine of ammo.
“It may be a while before we are proficient enough to go to Afghanistan, but when we go, it will be a good deployment.”