Dogs of Courage

By Lisa Rogak. St. Martin’s Press Griffin Paperback. $14.99.

If you ever doubted the versatility of the dog, this smooth-flowing examination will put that to rest.

Rogak doesn’t miss a beat in taking the reader nationwide – and occasionally afar – in detailing the species’ contribution in our everyday life as a both a partner and point companion from the battlefield and big-city streets to the woods and lakesides.

The title is somewhat of a reflection of the U.S. Post Office’s January 2012 release of a series of stamps entitled Dogs at Work, depicting a military working dog, a guide dog, a therapy dog and a search-and-rescue dog, all well-documented roles for man’s best friend.

But Rogak skillfully transports you much further into little-publicized corridors of canine assistance, from the waters of Puget Sound to the fields of the Southeast, thanks to its keen sense of smell.

David James Knowles, of Oak Brook, Ill., who adopted Lucy, a 6-months-old Lab/whippet mix considered to be unadoptable, beautifully captures the essence of our relationship with the dog: “Life is about the simple details. The simple details are what dogs understand. That’s what they convey to us – the simple details for genuine quality life.”

And another perspective from handler Jose Peruyero, of the J&K Canine Academy in High Springs, Fla., “I tell people they’re buying a nose with four legs to carry it. They love to eat, love to smell. It’s what they live for.”

Rogak, author of “The Dogs of War,” notes that most dogs thrive “when they have a task to perform that serves a useful purpose. And when they don’t, look out.” And that’s the essence of this work, too, probing what they can do, from detecting bedbugs and mold to wildlife and invasive species in addition, of course, to helping law enforcement apprehend criminals and finding those responsible for arson fires to explosives and drug detection at border sites and major public events.

The overriding message is that once a partnership is established between handler and dog, it is a continuing work in progress, nicely reflected by Air Force Staff Sgt Glenn Gordon, who partners with Ricky, a German shepherd: “It’s not like my dog found marijuana and now I’m done for the day. I also have to maintain the dog’s training. He’s just like a little kid. If he doesn’t continue to tie his shoes, he’s going to forget.”

Through most chapters, Rogak showcases a vignette of one dog that exemplifies the qualities required to perform the featured task.

While many handlers are military and law enforcement, thousands of others are volunteers. For them, the partnership is a life changer. No pay and total commitment.

Angela Eaton Snovak, a veteran Evergreen, Colo., search-and-rescue team member, emphasizes: “We tell people to train as often as possible, four to six times a week is great. We tell people that this becomes their priority in life. If you have small children or job that needs to be your priority, you need to rethink doing this.”

“You have to do this purely for the love of the job because you’re not going to profit from it,” adds Debbie Triplett, an Ohio Task Force One member. “In fact, it’s going to cost you dearly. It really consumes your life, you have to dedicate so much to it.”

The win-win benefits and emotional rewards of prison dog-training programs, water and avalanche rescue teams, guide, assistance and therapy-dog projects along with the incredible medical-alert and cancer-detection exploits are also addressed.

“We are only at the start of working out everything that dogs can detect,” says Dr. Claire Guest, CEO and director of operations of Medical Detection Dogs, a United Kingdom-based charitable organization that conducts research and training. “It would seem that almost any medical event has an odor change. The clever thing is that the dogs are able to work out what the norm is, and when it changes.”

“Dogs of Courage” paints the big picture with a rich array of color and context, skillfully capturing dogs’ prowess and resilient can-do spirit with vigor and sensitivity.