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A veteran named Michael, diagnosed with a host of physical and psychological problems after serving in Iraq, sits anxiously in a chair at an animal shelter in New Mexico. His first interaction with a potential service dog had been mixed, after the dog’s exuberance and leash-pulling caused Michael’s back pain to flare up. Moments later, a second candidate bounds into the room. The man and the dog bond instantly, and when the handlers suggest bringing in a third dog for comparison, Michael displays his certainty with a rarely seen smile: “I don’t need to see the third dog. This one makes me feel calm. This is my dog.”
A&E’s one-hour series Dogs of War explores the work of a nonprofit organization called Paws and Stripes, which was founded by Iraq War veteran Jim Stanek and his wife, Lindsey, after they saw how much a service dog could improve the lives of the veterans with whom they are paired. It happened with Stanek himself, who like most of the veterans he helps, suffers from PTSD. Stanek, through grants and donations, has since devoted himself to making service dogs available to those who cannot afford to purchase or wait for dogs that can cost $30,000-$60,000 in fees.
Dogs of War is meant to be an emotional experience (how could it not be?), and it doesn’t disappoint. But what makes the series really stand out is its down-to-earth nature. The Staneks are able to give fellow veterans and their wives solid advice, born from similar circumstances and struggles. And then, of course, there are the adorable canines also looking to be rescued and given purpose (the dogs all come from shelters, and are vetted for personality and trainability before being presented). Everyone has come to the right place.
In the first episode, after Michael brings home his service dog, his wife Jennifer has trouble relinquishing her primary role in helping him. Seeing how the dog, whom Michael names E Suda (essentially meaning “Has My Back”) is able to comfort her husband, she says, “That was me for 10 years.” Lindsey, though, is able to meet Jennifer’s questions and insecurities with first-hand knowledge about the toll their husbands’ conditions can take on them as spouses, and also how to accept the service dog’s help and place in their family — E Suda is there to give Jennifer a break as much as to aid in Michael’s healing. It’s the finest kind of reality television that addresses these sorts of difficult truths in a genuine way.
In addition to allowing time for the realities of the veterans’ changing home lives, Dogs of War also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties and frustrations of training a dog, and the level of commitment required from the veterans after the initial adoption. The end of each episode is only the beginning of these relationships, which the show makes clear.
Refreshingly, there’s no sense of exploitation, and no room for cynicism in A&E’s production, which boasts crisp production values and a compelling soundtrack. The series, and the purposeful stories it tells, feels natural, never prompted or overdone. The veterans’ struggles, and their path to healing through the sweet natures of companion dogs, makes for uplifting television that is never forced. Paws and Stripes features a quote from Teddy Roosevelt on its homepage: “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.” Dogs of War is a sincere look at those who are trying to make that happen.
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