In September, 2006, Pen Farthing, a sergeant in the Royal Marines, was deployed to the remote village of Now Zad in Afghanistan. Back home in the UK, Pen had two dogs he adored, so seeing all the strays running loose in the streets of the town saddened him. What really disturbed him though was when he caught members of the Afghan National Police, who shared their compound, running a dog fight. Even though he risked offending them, Pen broke up the fight and made sure the men knew how upset he was over the way they were treating the dogs. Not long after the incident, while exploring the compound, Pen came upon one of the dogs that had been used in the fight hiding in a storeroom. He began caring for the dog, whom he dubbed Nowzad, built him a dog run, and appealed to his wife, Lisa, for help in finding an animal rescue in Afghanistan. Soon more and more dogs mysteriously showed up inside the compound despite Pen's best efforts to keep them out. Each time a new dog appeared, he couldn't resist trying to help. Eventually, Lisa located an animal shelter, but it was 700 miles away from where Pen was stationed and would require someone to drive through hostile Taliban territory to get there. Over and over, his plans to get the dogs to safety fell through, and soon his troop would be moving on to another assignment. The story that follows is one man's dedication to rescuing man's best friend in a far-away land One Dog at a Time.
One Dog at a Time is part war story, part dog story that is by turns both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The author was a Royal Marine deployed to a remote village in Afghanistan. He is obviously a dog lover, but he didn't set out to become a caretaker for the strays of Afghanistan. They simply found and befriended him along the way. In many ways, I think that caring for the dogs became something of an escape for Pen (and many other soldiers and marines on the front) from the rigors of fighting. It helps to give them a sense of normalcy and a little companionship in the midst of a war zone.
The resilience of these animals and their intuitive sixth sense about which humans can be trusted is utterly amazing. Nowzad, the first dog Pen rescued had been used as a fighting dog by the first group of Afghan National Police (ANP) who shared their compound. It absolutely broke my heart to learn how the dogs ears and tails are lopped off without anesthetic all for the sake of them fighting for sport. I was astounded by how quickly Nowzad began to warm up to Pen after the abuse he'd suffered and probably never having had much positive contact with humans. When the shelling started, he somehow managed to jump a high fence, looking for Pen. In spite of becoming best buds with Pen, Nowzad could understandably still be somewhat unpredictable around other people. I could really sense Pen's frustration over not having enough time to work with Nowzad to unlearn his fighting training. More than once I thought Nowzad might come to a heartbreaking end, because of his history of fighting and seemingly not being able to trust anyone but Pen. Somehow the author was able to look past all this and see the potential in him and give him a chance at a better life.
The other dogs, twenty-one in all, somehow found Pen. More than once, he was sure his comrades wouldn't believe that he hadn't purposely brought them into the compound. The dogs just seemed to instinctively know that there was someone inside those walls who would help them. The second dog, RPG, followed Pen to his duty post in the wee hours of the morning, running around him in circles, just wanting someone to play with him. Then there was Jena, the pregnant mom who was being used as a breeder by the ANP. Later even more dogs joined the group including Tali, another momma dog with six puppies and AK, a female dog who'd been bitten by a snake. Then there were Dushka and Patches, two dogs who stayed outside the compound but who often accompanied the marines during their patrols. The way Dushka, another fighting dog, followed their cues, moving when they moved and crouching when they crouched was just too cute. It's amazing how these dogs who were essentially wild street dogs with little experience around humans can pick up on these things so easily. It shows what intelligent creatures they really are and that they have emotions too.
Some of the military operations passages moved a little slowly for me, not that the author goes into great detail with these parts but simply because military stuff isn't a primary reading interest for me. However, I was intrigued by the times where they experienced some interactions with the Afghan people. The little children who begged for pens and candy from the marines was equally as heartbreaking as the dog stories. The second group of ANP who came to share their compound were much better than the first. Pen and some of his men were actually able to make friends with them, and even though they still found Pen and "his dogs" to be funny, they helped out with them in more ways than one. It was also interesting to see how the marines spent Christmas day.
I was quite saddened to learn that not all the dogs found happy endings, but as the title suggests, perhaps it's enough to save just one dog at a time. I really admire the author's compassionate heart for the animals and his tenacity in trying to give them a better life. Pen has now started a charity, Nowzad Dogs, to help rescue more strays from Afghanistan and Iraq, and is also helping his fellow service members to bring home the dogs that they have befriended too. Overall, I really enjoyed One Dog at a Time and look forward to reading the sequel, No Place Like Home which details the author's efforts to assist more dogs in finding forever homes.
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