Allison's Book Bag

Sergeant Rex by Mike Dowling

Posted on: March 4, 2016

Sergeant Mike Dowling and his dog Rex were only one of a handful of military working dogs or K9 teams deployed in 2004 to the war in Iraq. Moreover, they were part of the first 12 Military Working Dog teams sent to the frontline of a war since Vietnam. In the nonfiction narrative, Sergeant Rex, Dowling tells the story of how the team went from being guinea pigs to seasoned partners in detecting weapons, bombs, and explosives. Their story shows how strong the bond between man and dog can be, as well as how dedicated trained canines can be to the service field in which they are placed.

Dowling grew up around animals. The family had guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, turtles, fish, snakes, turtles, cats, and dogs. Closest to his heart were the dogs. He grew up with a setter and a spaniel. In junior high, his sister volunteered with Guide Dogs for the Blind and his family fostered one of the Labrador puppies. Years into the future, an evening walk with a family dog helped Dowling realize that his life in college was falling apart and that it was time to pursue only the positives in his life. All these animal experiences Dowling reflected upon when only a short time later he found himself with the opportunity to apply for the position in the Marine Corps of being a K9 handler. As only the top two or three in any class would receive that honor, Dowling not only had to show his love of dogs on in essay application but he also had to pass a robust set of physical and skills tests to even be considered. From boyhood to manhood, his love of dogs stands out.

Before Dowling could begin the intensive work of turning Rex into one of the most highly-trained dogs in the world, which patrol detection dogs need to be, he needed to develop a rapport with Rex. To do so, Dowling slowly entered Rex’s cage on the first day they met, talking softly to him the entire time. Dowling slipped a collar on Rex, attached the leash, reached for a choke chain…. and Rex bit him. Dowling’s reaction? He immediately alpha-rolled him. After that, Dowling could pet him, groom him, play with him, and teach him obedience. Soon Rex began to not only accept Dowling in his life, but also to act happy to see him as well as to depend and trust him. When out in the war zone, despite not liking the noise of guns and explosions, Rex stayed exclusively by Dowling’s side. Vets couldn’t examine Rex without a sedative first being administered, but Rex would allow Dowling to treat wounds. In every situation, Rex saw Dowling as the pack leader.

From the start, Rex showed promise as military service dog. He hailed from a top German shepherd breeder in Germany. Only the best dogs make it through the Dog Training School in Lakeland and so the school starts with the cream of the crop. When Rex started at DTS, he quickly distinguished himself even as a novice. Dowling writes that Rex had excellent odor recognition, would track odor until a source was pinpointed, responded regardless of the handler’s position, and had significant drop-leash and off-leash work. When Dowling began working with Rex, the canine’s detection skills were already highly developed. These skills, the two used while in Iraq to search out weapons, bombs, and explosives. Many times their lives were at risk; many times too they saved lives due to their finds.

Sergeant Rex isn’t my favorite dog book. The writing style is somewhat bland. While a present-tense narrative can create a sense of immediacy, I would have preferred a past-tense narrative, as that’s when this story happened. In addition, I sometimes found myself confused when tense switches were made as to the time of the action. Dowling seems too intent on ensuring he remains positive. Even when Dowling has an initial negative reaction to an individual, he always ends up writing glowing words about most everyone. That said, there were times I felt as if he felt overly proud about how willing he and Rex were to put themselves into danger, while some of his comrades he viewed as not brave enough to accept certain assignments.

These criticisms aside, dog owners and military folks should enjoy Sergeant Rex. It gives an in-depth portrayal of what serving as part of a K9 team in the Marine Corps is like. In doing so, not only did I catch a glimpse of the terror of war, but I also gained an appreciation for the sheer amount of work that goes into training dogs for service. Incidentally, Rex ranked as the longest-serving canine in the Marine Corps, retiring only in 2012.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

2 Responses to "Sergeant Rex by Mike Dowling"

I’ve been around police dogs and those not as highly trained they are amazing. They have to bond with their handler first. That is key. Sounds like a great read.

Have a fabulous day and weekend. ☺

Sergeant Rex was interesting enough that I’ll be looking for more books about service dogs. Enjoy the weekend!

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