BEA'S BOOK NOOK "I can't imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once." C. S. Lewis “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” ― Oscar Wilde

Friday, July 3, 2015

Bea Reviews Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca by Maria Goodavage

Publisher: Dutton 
Source: the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Release Date: October 23, 2014
Challenges: NetGalley and Edelweiss Reading Challenge | What An Animal
Buying Links: Amazon* | Book Depository* | OmniLit* | Kobo | Barnes & Noble
* affiliate links; the blog receives a small commission from purchases made through these links.

Blurb from goodreads:

The New York Times bestselling author of Soldier Dogs returns with the incredible, true story of K-9 Marine hero Lucca, and the handlers who fought alongside her through two bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Top Dog, Maria Goodavage takes readers into the life of Lucca K458, a decorated and highly skilled military working dog. An extraordinary bond develops between Lucca and Marine Corps dog handlers Chris Willingham and Juan Rodriguez, in what would become a legendary 400-mission career. A Specialized Search Dog, Lucca belongs to an elite group trained to work off-leash at long distances from her handler. She served alongside both Special Forces and regular infantry, and became so sought-after that platoons frequently requested her by name.

The book describes in gritty detail Lucca's adventures on and off the battlefields, including tense, lifesaving explosives finds and firefights, as well as the bravery of fellow handlers and dogs they served with. Ultimately we see how the bond between Lucca and her handlers overcame the endless brutalities of war and the traumas this violence ignites.

Here is a portrait of modern warfare with a heartwarming and inspiring conclusion that will touch dog lovers and the toughest military readers.

Bea's Thoughts:

I love animals and I come from a military family so this book called to me when I saw it on NetGalley. Plus, look at that cover, that expressive, handsome face. How could I resist? Obviously, I couldn't.

I'd heard of military dogs before of course and had a vague idea of what they did. There are different jobs, all of them (at least the ones in this book) relying on a sense of smell. Lucca is a German Shepherd and Malinois mix, bred in the Netherlands specifically for military work. She was purchased by the US Marines to train. Her story starts in Afghanistan with her second handler then quickly jumps back to when she meets her first handler, a Marine named Chris Willingham. We see her training and we see the bond forming between her and Willingham. Lucca's job is to sniff out IEDs and other weapons. She's so good at it that during her Marine career she saved hundreds of lives both military and civilian and didn't lose a single man out on patrol with her.

The story is not just Lucca's but that of her handler Chris Willingham. A long-time dog man and devoted Marine, he believes strongly in the work that Lucca and other military working dogs do. He's a passionate supporter and spreads the word both within the military and later in the civilian world. We see his loyalty to the dog handlers that he trains and that he works with. He takes on their well-being as his own and struggles when one is killed in action. He and Lucca served two deployments together and were partners for several years. Goodavage does an excellent job showing us Willingham's passion, loyalty, and struggles, and his pride in and love for Lucca. When he makes the difficult decision, for both his sake and his family's sake, to give up dog handling, we feel his pain at losing Lucca and losing the work he loved so much. He gets to personally choose her next handler, Rod Rodriguez.

Although Lucca misses Willingham, it doesn't take long for she and Rod to bond. He knew of her and had met her before so he was excited and honored to be chosen as her new handler. But, he knew from the outset that when Lucca retired, Willingham would adopt her. Lucca was Rod's only while she served. Still, he came to love her just as much as Willingham did. When she's injured on duty, he follows her to the different hospitals and even sleeps with her in her kennel to keep her company. I admit, I teared up at times.

Goodavage did a fantastic job of describing the missions, the set up, life overseas, and of relaying Lucca's personality. Lucca's friendly, affectionate, serious on duty and silly off duty. She's proud of doing a good job. At times, Goodavage goes overboard and anthropomorphizes Lucca and some of her canine peers but for the most part, she manages to skip that pitfall. The humans are not neglected either. I felt as if I knew Willingham and I fear that if I ever meet him, I may start talking to him as if we're already acquainted. We don't get to know Rodriguez quite as well which is unfortunate but I liked what I saw of him. Especially the love and care he gives her when she's injured. I was glad to see that military changed it's policy and no longer abandoned or euthanized dogs who finished their service. By the time Lucca was injured, she was able to be treated and then retired. I teared up again when Rod had to hand her over to Willingham and his family but some of the tears were happy tears. Willingham knew how much Lucca meant to Rod and took extra care to include him.

I have a few gripes about the story. The first was that at times it was over the top on the 'rah rah America is great and wonderful and we're here to save everyone' mentality. Granted, given the story, I expected some of that but I hoped that Goodavage as the author and biographer would have been more objective than the people involved and might have cast a more critical eye. I also wish that the book had included photographs; I assume none were put in for security reasons but they would have added immensely to the story. My other gripes I already mentioned - the occasional anthropomorphizing and that we don't get as full a picture of Rodriguez as we do of Willingham.

There's a happy ending for Lucca, Willingham, and Rodriguez. Well, considering they're all still alive, that state is subject to change but the book ends on a high note for all three of them. I enjoyed meeting Lucca, her canine boyfriends, her human handlers, and the other dog handlers. I enjoyed seeing and learning more about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and learning about military working dogs. The dogs, their handlers and everyone who's on the frontlines has my respect. I enjoyed the book and definitely recommend it for dog lovers, animal lovers, and anyone wanting a closer look at the wars.

ETA 7/3/2015: In a  nice bit of serendipity, this news article showed up on my Yahoo page shortly after this post went live -


  1. Oh this sounds like a fabulous read! I don't think people realize the amazing work that these canines do!

  2. This sounds like a really good read, and one that honors the work these dogs and their handlers do. Like you, I'd prefer a look that is a little more objective in regards to America's role in the Middle East, but I have nothing but respect for our soldiers and their canine companions, so I think I would enjoy the book. Terrific review!


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