It was late—an indistinguishable, bleary-eyed hour. The lamps in the living room glowed against the black spring night. 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. This was no ordinary dog. Dyngo, a year-old Belgian Malinois, had been trained to propel his pound body weight toward insurgents, locking his jaws around them. This dog had saved thousands of lives. And now this dog was in my apartment in Washington, D. 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.
My morning at the base had been a blur. Then, suddenly, I had a dog. That first night, Dyngo sat on my hotel bed in an expectant Sphinx posture, 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 smiled: Dyngo is a dog who dreams.
But the next morning, the calm, relaxed dog became amped up and destructive. Inside the hotel room, I gave him one of the toys the handlers had packed for us—a rubber chew toy shaped like a spiky Lincoln log. Thinking he was occupied, I went to shower. When I emerged from the bathroom, it was like stepping into the aftermath of a henhouse massacre.
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Feathers floated in the air like dust. Fresh rips ran through the white sheets. There in the middle of the bed was Dyngo, panting over a pile of massacred pillows. On my thighs were scratches where his teeth had hit my legs, breaking the skin through my jeans. Later, at the airport, with the help of Southwest employees, we swept through the airport security and boarded the plane.
I finally pushed it into the hands of a flight attendant, beseeching her to take it as far out of sight as possible—if necessary, to throw it out of the plane. The trip ended late that night in my apartment, where we both collapsed from exhaustion—I on the couch and he on the floor.
It would be our last bit of shared peace for many months. As I cautiously held my ground less than two feet from him, 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.
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It was February when Staff Sgt. Justin Kitts boarded a helicopter with Dyngo. They were on their way to their next mission with the U. He bounded in alongside Kitts, hauling himself up onto the seat. As they rose over the white-dusted ridges, Dyngo pushed his nose closer to the window to take in the view.
Kitts found a lot of tranquility during these rides together before a mission, just him and his dog, contemplative and still. On the first day of March, the air was chilly, the ground damp from rain.
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Kitts brushed his teeth with bottled water. The plan for the day was familiar.
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The platoon would make its way on foot to nearby villages, connecting with community elders to find out if Taliban operatives were moving through the area planting improvised explosive devices. The goal was to extend the safe boundary surrounding their outpost as far as possible. Kitts and Dyngo assumed their patrol position—walking in front of the others to clear the road ahead. After six months of these scouting missions, Kitts trusted that Dyngo would keep him safe.
Kitts used the retractable leash to work Dyngo into a grape field. He called Dyngo back to him and signaled the platoon leader. We should not continue going that way. The platoon leader called in an explosive ordnance disposal EOD team. The other soldiers took cover where they were—along a small dirt path between two high walls in what was almost like an alleyway—while Kitts walked Dyngo to the other end of the path to clear a secure route out. Again, Kitts let Dyngo move ahead of him on the retractable leash. He was on odor again.
Then the gunfire started. He grabbed Dyngo and pulled him down to the ground, his back against the mud wall.
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The next thing Kitts heard was a whistling sound, high and fast, flying past them at close range. Then came the explosion just feet from where they were sitting, a deep thud that shook the ground. The rocket-propelled grenade explosion had registered to his canine ears much deeper and louder, the sensation painful. Dyngo flattened himself to the ground. The popping of bullets continued, so, knowing his dog was safe for the moment, Kitts dropped the branch and returned fire over the wall. The air support team laid down more fire and suppressed the enemy, bringing the fight to a standstill.
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, hours executing 63 outside-the-wire missions, where they discovered more than pounds of explosives. The military credited them with keeping more than 30, U.
I first heard about how Dyngo saved lives in the grape field before I ever laid eyes on him. I visited kennels on military bases all over the country and had the opportunity to hold leashes through drills, even donning a padded suit to experience a dog attack. I tried to maintain some kind of journalistic distance from the dogs I met on these trips.
Many of the dogs were aggressive or protective of their handlers. Some were uninterested in affection from anyone other than their handlers.
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But there were a handful of dogs I met along the way whose sweet and personable company I enjoyed. Dyngo went with me willingly when I held his leash and started greeting me with a steady thump of his tail. Back then, his ears stood straight and tall, matching the rich coffee color of his muzzle. Unusually broad for a Malinois, his large paws and giant head cut an intimidating build. Kitts commented that he was impressed with how much Dyngo, usually stoic around new people, seemed to like me.
And when Dyngo laid his head in my lap, I felt the tug of love.
But it would be another three years before the military was ready to officially retire Dyngo and I would have to wrestle with that question for real. But now he was dubious. 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. The more I weighed the decision, the longer that list grew.
Even so, that little feeling tugged harder. I weighed all the pros and cons and then disregarded the cons. Instinctively, I gripped the phone tighter. Kitts counseled me through that night, intuiting that what Dyngo needed to feel safe was a crate. My friend Claire, who has a tall-legged boxer, had a spare crate and came over to help me put together all its walls and latches. I covered the top and sides with a sheet to complete the enclosure. During the first week, I had one objective: to wear Dyngo out. I chose the most arduous walking routes—the mounting asphalt hills, the steepest leaf-laden trails.
The pace was punishing.