- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Tuesday’s episode of NCIS, titled "Seek," not only features a military working dog and his handler but revolves around them. Without giving too much away for anyone who missed the show, the episode begins with this Marine handler and his dog, a black lab named Dex, searching a village lane in Afghanistan. Moments after a harrowing encounter with an IED, the handler is shot and killed by a sniper. Shortly after this, the NCIS cast of characters is called in to track down the handler’s killer with Dex lending a helping paw.
Co-executive producer, Scott Williams, blogged about the making of this episode, writing that inspiration for the storyline came last year after the photo of Hawkeye "laying faithfully beside the flag-draped casket of his late master, Navy SEAL hero Jon Tomlinson," went viral.
I’ve never watched NCIS before and, as you might expect with a storyline like this, there’s a bit of creative license taken with its portrayal of the handler-canine combat-zone experience, elements of which are plied for dramatic effect. But aside from some overwrought canine wordplay, I was surprised by how few head-shaking moments there were; the show’s producers appear to have been very committed to an accurate representation of an MWD’s role in wartime — from the jargon handlers use to expository dialogue with a bit of war-dog history. Even the episode’s title "Seek," referring to the command a handler gives his dog when on an explosive-seeking patrol, felt like an authentic tip of the hat to military dog teams.
There’s good reason for this accuracy, as the television network hired a few MWD experts to work behind the scenes while filming, including our friend Mike Dowling, former Marine handler and author. Dowling, who worked on the show as a technical advisor, says he enjoyed consulting with NCIS writers and actors. "I really appreciated how they wanted to make sure they were honoring the military dog community properly," he says. "They were very open to listening and learning about the heroic work military dog teams do." Dowling also mentioned that Dexter, the dog actor playing "MWD Dex," was "simply brilliant." I agree, for while you’d be hard pressed to find a dog who didn’t pull heartstrings in this kind of story, Dexter alone makes the show worth watching.
If you missed it, you can watch the episode online (though fair warning, the amount of commercial interruption alone is prohibitive). The moment of the episode that really struck a chord with me came during one fairly unremarkable scene where Mark Harmon’s character, Special Agent Gibbs, interviews a military contractor who witnessed the handler being shot. When Gibbs wants to know what dog team’s assignment was, the man replies, "[To] save our lives."