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Book Review - "Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca"

The following book review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews by clicking on the Books category link on the right sidebar.

9780525954361_p0_v2_s260x420Dogs always seem to be an intricate part of people’s lives.  Maria Goodavage’s latest book, Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca, is a true story that is also a riveting thriller with action-packed scenes, heart-pounding combat sequences, high tension, and suspense. It is the story of two heroes, one male and one female, one four-legged and her handler.  The author shows the passionate relationship between a military working dog and its partner.

Top Dog is the story of a German Shepherd-Belgian Malinois mix, Lucca, and her dog handlers, Marine Staff Sergeant Chris Willingham and Marine Corporal Juan "Rod" Rodriguez. The intensity of the book is presented from page one, where readers find themselves immediately rooting for Lucca.  Unlike other books the author skillfully goes back and forth between Lucca surviving an IED bombing and how she became such an important part in the effort to save her fellow Marines’ lives. The reader is taken on a six year journey with Lucca from her youth in the Netherlands, her formative months in Israel as part of the elite Israeli Oketz K-9 group, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death of her best four-legged friend, to losing a leg and being adopted by her handler and his family. A Specialized Search Dog, Lucca belongs to a 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. But this is more than a war story, it is also about the extraordinary bond that developed between Lucca and Marine Corps dog handlers Chris Willingham and Juan Rodriguez.

Chris and Lucca in Iraq (2)

Chris Willingham commented, “Military dogs have drive, loyalty, intelligence, are trainable, can handle the rigors of combat, and can take directions.  The handlers have to be independent thinkers, mature, responsible, have confidence in themselves and the dog, but are never cocky.  Being a kennel master at Pendleton, and a supervisor for all the Marines and the military dogs including training and operational readiness I can tell a special dog.  I personally think the best breeds of dogs for the military are the German Shepherd and the Belgian Malinois because they are the easiest to train.  Lucca being a mix of both these breeds had the best of both worlds.  I know all handlers think their dogs are the best but she is truly the best. She is a real Marine and we are called a team for a reason.”

Kris Knight a fellow dog handler and a supervisor will be retiring this month.  He is called the “dog whisperer,” since he knows so much about training a dog. ( He describes the relationship between Lucca and Chris as “the perfect match.  They are absolute rock stars.  Like one in a thousand who did something no one else will be able to duplicate during my lifetime. They had such a rapport.  Too bad she could not be cloned. She went on over four hundred missions and no one lost a life to an IED.”

It is not necessary to read the first book in the series, Soldier Dogs, but in doing so readers will get an understanding of military working dogs as a unique part of the military tapestry.  This book goes into great detail about the military working dog program, the training of these dogs, their deployments, and their retirement. While researching this first book the author was able to speak with Gunnery Sergeant Chris Willingham about his time in Afghanistan when he was kennel master in charge of 30 dog teams. Maria later connected the dots and found out that Chris was the handler of Lucca, and decided to write a follow up book that would concentrate on this special dog and her military partners.

Maria noted, “I decided to write these military dog books because the program is so important regarding the number of lives saved.  I put this quote in Soldier Dogs, ‘There is one response that the Taliban has no answer for: the soldier dogs.’  Lucca would frustrate the insurgent bomb makers because she was so smart, calm, and heroic. She saved those serving from getting killed, hurt or maimed.  Lucca was one of the first off leash US military dogs, which allowed her the freedom to find the explosives, a great force multiplier.”

Top Dog is an appropriate title for this special canine.  This book is a great present for the holidays. It is a very heart warming story since this heroic animal and her Marine buddies had an unbreakable bond. Everyone should read this book if for no other reason than to be a part of the deep loving relationship between Lucca and her handlers, where they overcame the endless brutalities of war and the traumas created by this violence.