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NH filmmaker tells 'War Dog' story

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 12. 2017 9:18PM
Handler Dave Nielsen opens the "War Dog" documentary with a reading of an emotional letter he wrote to Pepper, who was lost during a raid in Afghanistan. (COURTESY OF HBO)

Special Operations require special dogs.

New Hampshire filmmaker Deborah Scranton spent the last three years learning just how special while working on her latest project, “War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend.”

“The film is really about the incredible relationship and bond that these men and dogs have,” Scranton said of Special Ops handlers and dogs. “It’s such a profound relationship. I’ve really never encountered anything like it.”

“War Dog” airs tonight on HBO.

Scranton, a Goshen native, said the inspiration for the documentary came from one of its stars; Layka, a Belgian Malinois who lost a front leg after getting shot during a U.S. Army Ranger mission in Afghanistan. The image of Layka sitting up straight with a medal hanging from her neck ran on the cover of National Geographic in June 2014.

“You can’t try out for some of these things. You’re selected for them and it’s the same thing with these dogs. And these dogs love what they do,” Scranton said. “These guys consider these dogs a teammate. They just happen to have four legs and a tail.” 

“War Dog” chronicles the stories of Layka, Mika and Pepper and their handlers. 

“She has done it justice and then some,” said Dave Nielsen, who was Pepper’s handler when she was lost during a raid in Afghanistan, shown through military night-vision footage. 

It’s Nielsen who opens the film as he reads an emotional letter to his late partner, saying he had some treats, the dog’s leash and other mementoes he kept in an old ammo box.

Layka, a Belgian Malinois who lost a front leg after getting shot during a U.S. Army Ranger mission in Afghanistan, receives physical therapy. (COURTESY OF HBO)

Nielsen said it was cathartic to be able to recall his partner and friend — “a lap dog who became a beast of fury” on command — and see how Scranton brought it all to life in the film.

“This was part of my recovery, a huge part of it,” Nielsen said in a phone call from his home in North Carolina. 

Scranton’s previous work includes “Earth Made of Glass,” a look at how Rwanda and its people are still recovering from the genocide that ravaged the African nation in 1994. It won a Peabody Award in 2012 and also aired on HBO. 

“The War Tapes,” featuring footage shot by soldiers in the field and edited online by Scranton, won the best documentary feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006.

Layka attended the premiere of “War Dog” in Los Angeles last week, although she didn’t enjoy it as much as the human members of the unit, Scranton said.

“Layka on the red carpet was not a happy girl,” Scranton said.

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