Interview with Maria Goodavage, Author of Secret Service Dogs: The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States
On the eve of the 2016 Presidential election, DogWatch got the opportunity to speak with best-selling author Maria Goodavage about her new book Secret Service Dogs: The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States. After chronicling the world of military working dogs in Soldier Dogs and Top Dog: The Story of Marine Hero Lucca, Goodavage focuses her new book on the relatively unknown lives of the dogs and handlers who spend the days patrolling the White House lawn, searching for explosives at campaign events and sniffing passersby along Pennsylvania Avenue. Regardless of who wins today’s Presidential election, these dogs will be there, protecting and serving our nation with pride and dedication. We asked Goodavage about her research, some of the remarkable dogs she profiles in her book, and her own new puppy with a touching connection to one of the many working dogs and handlers she’s met along the way.
DogWatch: How did you decide that Secret Service dogs would be the next topic for your book?
Maria Goodavage: During my research with the military, people would always say “Oh and we also work with the Secret Service in protection details.” And they were so proud of that. It got me to thinking, “Does the Secret Service have its own dogs?” So I started exploring that topic three years ago and yes, they do but almost nothing has been written about them. And I thought this is a great topic to explore. I mean what better than to uncover the Secret Service dogs and give them the spotlight they clearly deserve. They’re amazing, as I started finding out about them.
The book’s forward was written by Clint Hill, the former Secret Service agent who was assigned to protect First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. I happened to meet him on a boat in San Francisco Bay by pure coincidence and we got to talking. He said, “I can put you in touch with some guys who were right there in the beginning.” So that was such serendipity and it just went from there. It took about nine months for the Secret Service to say yes to me.
DW: And I assume that your reputation from working with military dog handlers and writing your two previous books helped, right?
MG: Oh definitely. They had to see a track record of protecting my sources as well, just to make sure that I’m not in it to uncover dirt. In the dog world, there’s no dirt to be uncovered. The dogs don’t get involved in scandalous activities nor do the handlers. So it was very clean territory.
DW: When most people think “Secret Service dog,” they probably think of a dog sitting in front of the Oval Office door or next to the podium when the President is speaking. But that’s not what you found out, correct?
MG: Exactly, the President rarely sees the dogs. The President could look out of the White House on any given day and see plenty of dogs but they’re not right there flanking his or her side. The explosives dogs will sweep for explosives anywhere he or she goes. These dogs will be ahead of the President. As far as the protective dogs [also known as tactical or Emergency Response Team (ERT) dogs] they’re there always. But no, they are not like Secret Service agents, flanking them all the time. There are many, many layers of protection for the President, and they are one of them. That was surprising to me, all these layers of protection for the President.
DW: You also point out that the Explosive Dectection Team (EDT) dogs travel a lot – they’re the frequent flyers of the dog world. So how do they prepare them for that?
MG: The dogs are rarely from the US. They’ve come here from Europe, so they’ve already been on planes. They choose dogs that have the temperament to withstand high stress situations such as plane travel. Fortunately, the planes that they fly in are military planes. That’s not great for the handlers, as they are not known for their comfort, but it’s better for the dogs because the handlers can check on them whenever they need to. If it’s a B-17, they all ride together and the dog can be right by the handler in the dog kennel. If it’s a C-5, they just have to go downstairs to the belly of the plane to see their dogs.
There’s a scene in the book where a dog escaped from his kennel in a C-5. It’s actually an amusing scene in hindsight. At the time, I’m sure it was far from it, chasing airmen around the belly of the plane, because he was not happy being on a plane.
DW: Dogs will be dogs, even very well trained ones.
MG: Oh yeah, and they’re pretty high drive dogs so they’re not all going to be the most mellow dogs. Benadryl definitely comes into effect on long plane rides to chill them out a little bit. They don’t want to knock their dogs out completely or anything, but they just want to take the edge off.
The average dog flies about 300 times in his or her career. And in an election year like this, it’s really crazy. I recently spoke with the handlers I interviewed for the book, and they’re busy all the time going to various cities with the candidates. It’s just almost non-stop work. They love being with their dogs, thank goodness, so it works out, but it’s a lot of work right now.
I saw a couple of examples of the dogs at work in Washington, DC. The dogs get there very early. Even if the President is not appearing until 4PM, the dogs are there at the crack of dawn. And they are there to help secure areas all over the place and once they’re secured, they’re locked down, so nothing else comes in that has not been checked. Whoever works in logistics is just a genius. I know they’ve got it all down but I don’t know how they do it. And knowing that this is not just the trip of the year, but this is one of many that month. I don’t know how they do it.
The Secret Service has taken a few hits in recent years, but the dogs are definitely worthy of trust and confidence, and their handlers know it. And the handlers have to be worthy of their dogs trust and confidence, and that’s something that they are always working on building.
DW: Despite all this rigorous training that the dogs go through, it seems like each dog really does have his or her own personality. Do you notice that right away? Or are they all the same at work and when they’re at rest, that’s when the personality comes out?
MG: From an on-lookers point-of-view, when they’re working they all do look kinda the same, because the ERT dogs are doing the bad-ass tactical stuff and the EDT dogs and Personnel Screening Canines (PSCs) are just sniffing and they all look the same when they’re doing that. I think it’s when they take a break or when you get to meet with them in person that you see, wow, they’re just as different as every handler is different. The dogs all have their own personalities. They may all be high drive dogs but they all have such funny quirks.
One of the big things the dogs have in common is that they work really really hard. These dogs don’t quit, and their handlers don’t quit either. They just want to keep on working. And they have that drive to keep on working, and it’s for the rewards, the “paycheck.” And the paycheck is the KONG or some kind of ball and that incredible praise from the handler that they love so much. They just want to make the handler happy, and the handler wants to make the dog happy and it’s great.
It’s so funny, I’ve experienced this for all my books. It just never fails to put a smile on my face, when a dog does something well in training and the big handler with the deep voice all of sudden, I hear the handler’s voice has gone up an octave or two to praise his dog. It’s like “Yay, good dog!” and the vowels get stretched out and the dog is so happy. They don’t do that when a dog does something in real life of course because you don’t want to be praising a dog like that in a situation that’s a little tenuous. But the dogs just thrive on that. The dogs will work so hard for that.
It’s all about the bond and the trust. The dogs are “worthy of trust and confidence,” like the motto of the Secret Service. The Secret Service has taken a few hits in recent years, but the dogs are definitely worthy of trust and confidence, and their handlers know it. And the handlers have to be worthy of their dogs trust and confidence, and that’s something that they are always working on building. These guys train so much. I’ve never seen such training. Every day, all the time. And the dogs live with their handlers, which helps them a lot. They’re already bonded, but they’re 24-7.
DW: Hurricane, one of the dogs featured in your book, is a very striking dog. What’s it like to see him at work and to see him transition from on-duty to off-duty?
MG: He’s a gorgeous dog. I got to witness that “on/off” switch a lot. He goes from full on to a couple minutes later, “could you scratch my tummy, please?” It’s unbelievable. He has the best on/off switch I’ve ever seen. A lot of those dogs have the on/off switch. They have the drive, but they also have to get along with other dogs, because they’re always working as a team with people and their dogs.
Hurricane is hilarious. He has such a big personality, kind of like his handler Marshall. They are so similar. They even look alike, I swear. And they are both really funny. They probably both have good on/off switches. His handler has such a relationship with him. They all do, but Hurricane has something special. Everyone on the team agrees that he’s quite the dog.
Hurricane is retired now. They announced it on Twitter last month. He’s got some of those older man issues going on. But he is a force to be reckoned with. And he’s retired to Marshall. They live an amazing life. He’s 8 years old now. These dogs, they take a pounding, but they love what they do. You should see them, it’s like playtime. You get these guys in their bite suits. I’ve seen so many dogs do this and they all have a good time but these dogs, it’s just the best thing in the world they could be doing, to get a chunk of that bite suit.
Back to Hurricane. He’s got a huge personality. He had to have a muzzle on officially when he was on the job but I can’t wait to see him this time because he doesn’t have to wear his muzzle. I know Marshall has fed him hamburgers for the first time in his life, and he’s so happy to be able to do that for his dog. He’s finally getting to chill out a little bit, which is not something that he does easily.
DW: Do they typically retire with their handlers?
MG: Yes. Pretty much all of them retire to their handlers. A lot of handlers will structure their careers so they will keep going, sometimes even turning down other work, so that they can stay with their dogs and their dogs can retire with them. Because they are a family, they are their partners, they are their best friends, they are their sons, they are their daughters and they’re not going to lose them.
DW: Roadee, the small, scruffy terrier mix who works as a “sniffer” dog lives with a retired Secret Service dog Ciela, correct?
MG: Ciela [a Beligian Malinois] is Miss Mellow, Miss Perfect, and then you’ve got Roadee, who’s still working and he’s a little scamp. The handler was training Roadee while he still had Ciela. Ciela was going through the retirement process, so he would take Ciela to training sometimes. She probably does some eyerolls when she sees Roadee coming, but they are friends in the house. Usually it works out pretty well. A lot of handlers have other pet dogs, too, so they make it work.
The beauty of the dogs is that they are non-partisan. They will just keep on working. They will protect Trump or Clinton with the same enthusiasm.
DW: I understand they have protocols in place to keep the Secret Service dogs separate from the Presidential pets. Did you hear any stories about interactions between the dogs and any Presidential cats?
MG: I didn’t hear any stories. That’s a really good question. I have a feeling the cat had to be in certain rooms when the dogs went through. The dogs will generally go through the more touristy parts. But cats can wander downstairs. Cats are cats. That’s a really good question that I need to ask actually!
The Secret Service know where the Presidential pet dogs are all times, and the White House staff knows where the dogs are and the staffers will call in. A lot of people have asked me, what happens when there’s a new President, will the Secret Service dogs have to get used to new dogs? And I explain that the dogs aren’t that close to the President. But I wonder also if the dogs have to get used to a new scent. On the lawn, for instance, hey, they’re Bo and Sunny [President Obama’s two Portugese Water Dogs] and they had their scent and they know that one and now that fades into oblivion starting next year. Will there be a scent, if Hillary Clinton wins, of her dogs? Of course, if it’s Trump, he doesn’t have a dog, so that will be one less thing they have to coordinate.
The beauty of the dogs is that they are non-partisan. They will just keep on working. They will protect Trump or Clinton with the same enthusiasm, because they are just working for that paycheck.
DW: Tell us about your nine month-old yellow Labrador Retriever Gus, who has a connection to one of the dogs from your previous book.
MG: He’s connected to Kory Wiens and his dog Cooper, who were both killed by an IED in Iraq in 2007. Kory always said his dog was his son and he was so beloved by everyone who met Kory. Kory’s Dad and I became friends. He knew that I lost my Lab last year and he started adopting dogs, yellow Labs, to remind him of his son and his dog and to give him comfort. He got one that he didn’t spay and she had a litter of puppies. So Gus is a Kory Wiens and Cooper memorial dog and he tries to wear it proudly and I tell Kory’s story briefly when people ask so people know what the sacrifices were. He’s gotta be a good dog. So far so good. I’m hoping he’ll be a therapy dog.
DW: One last question, we’re wondering how Lucca (the subject of her book Top Dog) is doing and do you keep in touch with her family?
MG: Thanks for asking, I love Lucca, she is kind of part of our family now, or I’m part of her family I guess. She’s doing well. She’s still happily retired in Southern California and she’s adjusting to having a new baby brother, Gus’ brother. She has a little yellow Lab half-brother, a Kory Wiens memorial dog named Murray. They named him Murray after Patrol Base Murray in Iraq where they were together. It’s hard having a little puppy in the house, but she likes him, deep down inside. You can see it. Every so often they send me pictures of them playing together or lying down sleeping next to each other and it’s very sweet. I think she actually likes having another dog. She’s 12 now and she’s doing very very well considering she going on three legs and arthritis can typically set in pretty early for those type of dogs and she’s definitely got some of that. But she’s living a very very nice life with her family.
A big thanks to Maria Goodavage for chatting with DogWatch! And if you’re interested in reading more about these amazing dogs, Secret Service Dogs is on sale now via Amazon or your local bookstore!
Featured Image Photo Credits
Book cover courtesy of Dutton
Photo of Hurricane in front of the White House courtesy of Maria Goodavage