Long-Dangerous Tails

German Shepherd Dogs and their people.
October 21st, 2014 by Karen Murray

A Hero In A Fur Coat

Parade Magazine Hero

I thought the Alta Tollhaus Family would appreciate this story about a German Shepherd War Hero!

Military dogs are often our troops’ first line of defense, sniffing out hidden bombs in some of the most dangerous places on earth. This excerpt from the new book Top Dog by Maria Goodavage recalls the ­sacrifice and bravery of a smart German Shepherd–­Belgian Malinois mix, who led Special Forces ­soldiers onto a battlefield in Afghanistan’s Helmand River valley in March of 2012. But it also captures the loyalty and trust that develop between a dog and her handler and the deep, loving bond that lasts a lifetime.

Marine Cpl. Juan “Rod” Rodriguez crunched across the dry farm field, his right hand resting on the M4 rifle strapped to his chest. He kept clear of the path that meandered through hard clumps of dirt that looked nothing like the rich soil of his New England roots. The road less traveled—ideally, no road at all—was the safest from homemade bombs sowed by the Taliban.

Rod watched his dog Lucca, who was 30 feet ahead, inspecting for IEDs. Unlike much of the agricultural land around here, this field was barren. In the distance, a compound, a tree line, some worn-down mountains.

Rod could see Lucca trotting with a purpose, nose down, tail up. She was an old pro at the business of sniffing IEDs off leash. “Good girl, Mama Lucca,” he said under his breath.

Lucca Bear. Lucca Pie. Bearcat Jones. Mama Lucca. The Special Forces ­soldiers Rod was working with had come to know Lucca by all the terms of endearment she had inspired during her career. She had led more than 400 missions, and no one had been hurt by an IED when they were with her.

Mama Lucca was the name that had stuck lately. She was the only one that the Green Berets felt comfortable hugging after a tough day. The maternal moniker was a natural fit.

Rod saw Lucca moving close to the narrow dirt path. He could sense she was onto something, and watched her intently in case he needed to steer her clear of suspicious-looking spots. She walked back and forth and every few steps turned more quickly, as she traced the scent to its point of origin. Lucca’s tail gave a few high, quick wags. She stopped and stared at Rod.

He got the message and called her back, praising her. “Good girl, Lucca!

“Ben,” he called to the engineer, who was following close behind. “Lucca just ­responded, right there,” pointing to the spot.

“Okay, we’ll take care of it,” Ben said. “Nice work, Mama Lucca.”

Rod shifted their course to keep Lucca away from the IED. She trotted ahead for about 25 feet, spun around, and headed back toward him.

A cloud of gray smoke erupted before Rod heard the explosion. “No!” Rod shouted, squeezing his helmet between his hands. Radios around him buzzed into a frenzy, but he didn’t hear words. As the curtain of debris curled away, he could see Lucca had dragged herself up and was standing, dazed, alive. Rod dashed toward her, not thinking about IEDs that might be between them. Lucca could take only a few steps before Rod swept her up in his arms.

Snipers struck at times like this. Rod ­wanted to run to the tree line with his dog, but he was afraid she’d bleed out. He laid her on the ground and ripped a tourniquet from inside his flak jacket. The blood streamed, and the soil softened under Lucca. He saw now that her front left paw and lower leg had been torn away. Lucca panted hard, whimpering every few breaths.

Focus, focus, Rod told himself. He wrapped the tourniquet strap around her shoulder. Bleeding slowed. Good. He picked her up again and she melted into him as he ran to the tree line 60 feet away. The Green Berets pulled security around them. An 18-Delta medic ran over and injected Lucca with a dose of morphine. Her panting slowed, but she remained aware as the medic bandaged her leg and shoulder.
Lucca shifted her gaze to the sky. Rod looked and saw the Medevac helicopter coming toward them. The Black Hawk landed just far enough away so the wash didn’t disturb Lucca. They loaded her up and Rod got in.

Special Forces Sgt. Jake Parker gave his friend Rod a thumbs-up as the Black Hawk headed east toward Camp Leatherneck.

That dog had better not die, Parker thought. Three members of a veterinary team met the helicopter and carried Lucca to the back of a pickup. One of the vets rode with her, comforting her as he checked her vitals.

Inside the veterinary tent, they lifted Lucca onto a table. “You’re going to be okay, Mama Lucca,” Rod told her, trying to sound convincing. The team ran a series of tests, started her on IV fluids and antibiotics, and irrigated the wound. Then they drew the skin over what was left of the leg and stitched it shut.

“There’s not much we can do for her,” one of the veterinarians said.

Rod stopped breathing.

“We’re going to have to send her to Kandahar. They’re better equipped for trauma.”

Rod exhaled and rested his hand on ­Lucca’s fur. “I want to tell you,” the vet continued,  “she would have bled out fast if you hadn’t acted so quickly.” He suggested Rod grab some clean clothes for the trip. Once the vet was out of sight, Rod stopped fighting the tears for just a few seconds.

At Kandahar Airfield, Capt. Nathan Chumbler awaited Lucca’s arrival. His veterinary team anesthetized her leg to assess the damage and concluded that it needed to be ampu­tated. But they wanted to do the surgery in the “human” hospital. Since Lucca was stable and it was now late, they would wait until morning.

Chumbler bandaged Lucca using pinkish red and yellow vet-wrap, the closest they had to the Marine flag colors of red and gold. He wrote the ­Marine motto, “Semper Fidelis,” on the wrap with a Sharpie.

Lucca was placed in a cage about four feet wide. Rod crawled in beside her. The vet tech, who had seen handlers like this before, brought him a blanket and a pillow. Just before dawn, when Rod grew too tired to worry about the complications of anesthesia, the possibility of infection, the idea of Mama Lucca’s leg coming off, he finally fell asleep.

The next morning, Rod carefully climbed out of Lucca’s cage to write a note to Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham, who had trained Lucca and served by her side in Iraq. After Willingham’s second deployment there ended, he chose Rod to take his place as Lucca’s handler. “I know you gave me Lucca with your trust,” Rod typed in an email, “and I hoped nothing like this would happen.” Willingham could imagine the guilt Rod was feeling: “I don’t regret [my decision] for one minute,” he wrote back. “I’m proud of you, man.” Within two days of Lucca’s surgery, she was walking again. A few months after that, Rod and Lucca boarded a plane to Finland, where Willingham was stationed with his family. They were adopting Lucca. Willingham worried that after everything Lucca had been through, she might not remember him. But when they met at the airport, she put her one front paw on his chest and licked his face for a good 15 seconds.

Click here for more photos of Lucca.

If you were to catch Lucca in the middle of her morning routine, she would look like any playful pup. “We take her outside and she rolls around on her back,” says Jill Willingham, wife of Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham. “Then we’ll get her fired up and she does a puppy dance and sprints in circles.”

In the two and a half years since her injury, Lucca, now 10, has adjusted completely to life on three legs. “She does everything she did with four legs,” Jill says. “She was like, ‘Hey, this is my new normal.’ But that’s what makes Lucca Lucca.”

Today, she is just part of the Willingham family in Southern California, where she enjoys living room wrestling matches, long naps, and family walks to the park with 5-year-old Michael and 7-year-old Claire (above, with Chris and Jill). When strangers stop to admire Lucca, Claire gladly launches into the story of her “hero dog.” (“It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever heard,” her mom says.)

Talking about Lucca’s days on the front lines helps Chris break the ice when he takes her to visit other wounded veterans. “Then they go on to talk about football and hunting and everything else,” says Jill. “It’s amazing to see the walls she brings down.”

Chris and Lucca also attend benefits for ­service members and veterans. At several of those events, they have been reunited with Rod, who is now a sophomore at Indiana University–Purdue ­University at Indianapolis, where he’s studying radiation therapy.

“Every time I get a chance to see Lucca, I don’t take it for granted,” Rod says. “It’s a great feeling to be around her.” Chris will hand Lucca’s leash over to Rod, and she’ll even sleep in Rod’s hotel room. “Chris always jokes that we have joint custody. It’s hard to put into words what she means to us.”

To learn about adopting a retired military dog—or to support deployed dog teams—go to uswardogs.org.

October 19th, 2014 by Lynda

Aiden IPO-2

On Sunday October 19, 2014 at the Quinebaug Schutzhund Club IPO Trial in Mansfield Center, CT Aiden was entered in IPO-2. This was a three-day trial with 11 BH, 6 AD, 6 IPO-1, 7 IPO-2, 10 IPO-3, 1 TR-1, 1 TR-2 and 1 FH entered and judged by SV Judge Heinz Kruse.

We drove to CT on Friday, even though we were scheduled to compete on Sunday, as there were many dogs/owners entered on both Friday and Saturday that we knew and wanted to support.

Dylan and Aiden relaxing at the hotel. Where are we supposed to sleep?? (this was not a staged picture)10-18-14 iphone 001 (4)

Sunday morning we woke up to find the weather was overcast and 45 degrees….perfect for Aiden! There were 10 IPO and 1 FH dogs scheduled to track. We convoyed to the tracking fields at the University of Connecticut (Uconn) just as the sun was coming up.

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Aiden did the best track of his life! He “nailed” the corners, clearly indicated the articles and must have impressed the judge as he got a score of 100.

In Obedience Aiden did the long down first, which he did perfectly. Once we started the formal obedience routine it was obvious that the nice cool weather had Aiden “wound up” resulting in him being very enthusiastic and more “bouncy” in heeling than normal. Unfortunately it took two commands to get him to stop during the Stand in Motion. At the wall (A-Frame) Aiden ran up to it but did not go over. He was too close then to go over it but thought it through and went around. He retrieved the dumbbell and came back over the wall! He got a score of 84.

In Protection Aiden did very well. I had to give him a second command to “out” but otherwise he had a good routine. He got a score of 92.

Aiden’s total score was 276 and he earned his IPO-2 at one day shy of his 2 year, 6 month birthday. This was the highest score of the seven IPO-2 dogs resulting in High IPO-2 in Trial.

 SV Judge Heinz Kruse presenting me and Aiden with our High IPO-2 trophy 10-19-14 059

A rare picture of me and Jack 10-19-14 070


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U-Ch., SG Alta-Tollhaus Aiden IPO-2, CD, RE, OAP, OJP, NFP, HT, TC, TDI, CGC


October 19th, 2014 by Bitsy Ball

Ozzie’s (O Litter, Enosca x Karma) Day at the Beach

Now that summer has ended in New Jersey, the beaches are open to dogs. What better way to celebrate Ozzie’s 7-month birthday than an introduction to the Jersey Shore. Being the typical AT water-dog he showed no hesitancy and bounded into the surf.

Ozzie’s Day at the Beach

After a day of swimming, nothing beats a good beach nap.


October 14th, 2014 by Julie

Eva and Jessica Trifecta

Eva Stock and her Jessica (E-litter Gavin x Bailey) had a successful time at the GSDCA Sieger show followed by competing in two events at the GSDCA Nationals starting the week after the sieger show. Jessica earned her SG rating at the sieger show and will be the last time she is show as she will be turning two in December and will not be titled in schutzhund so she can no longer compete in the show ring. At the GSDCA Nationals Jessica earned her AKC TD title, Tracking Dog, only one of 3 to pass the tracking test at this event. The next day they competed in the Temperament Certification with many compliments and kudos from the testers on Jessica’s behavior. This added a new title of TC to her name. Congratulations Eva on your accomplishments!


The glove Eva is holding is the glove that Jessica found at the end of the 500 yard track which has anywhere from 3 – 5 turns.

October 14th, 2014 by Julie

Marley at 10 Months

Marley from the M-litter Count x Mamba.  What a beautiful girl!