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Award-Winning Top Dog Lucca

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlike any wars in the past. Terrorist organizations created new types of warfare that America was not prepared to combat. One of their tactics was using IED’s, improvised explosive devices. IED’s became the number one killer of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. desperately needed a weapon to defend against these brutal explosives. Robots helped with bomb disposal but didn’t really help with detecting the explosives. Dogs, however, proved themselves to be much better at detecting explosives with their excellent sense of smell coupled with a handler to guide them from safe locations.

Goodavage, the author of Top Dog, says, “The combination of a trained dog handler’s ability to spot potential danger areas on the ground and the dog’s prowess at sniffing explosives would prove to be a formidable defense against these homemade bombs.” Dog trainer and handler Chris Willingham said of his dog Lucca, “I got the ability to walk on point, so we had the chance to detect an IED before we get to it. We searched for caches. Lucca is a force multiplier. She searched a lot bigger area than soldiers could, in a faster time. She’s trained to search roadways and buildings, vehicles and open areas. I’ve also got her trained up on some local odors (explosive) odors.” These dogs have shown to be a great asset to teams because they are able to work off leash while the soldiers are at a safe distance. The handler is able to spot bad looking areas and give commands to the dog to sniff it out. As soon as the dog indicates that it has found something they immediately call the dog back and call the bomb disposal team. Chris believes that dogs are an essential asset but also cautions, “Like all dogs, she’s proven, not perfect.”


Chris grew up in a family that regularly attended Church and that helped steer him towards following Jesus at a young age. He went to youth group and was very involved in the Christian community. He joined the Marines and became a dog handler. He was issued a new dog to train whose name was Lucca. Lucca was a calm German shepherd – Belgian Malinois mix that was extremely smart. As Chris trained with Lucca, she quickly exceeded the other dogs in the group and they formed a special bond. Chris and Lucca were sent to war in Iraq and were tasked to help protect the troops from hidden IED’s and locate weapon caches. Lucca had close to 40 finds (IED’s and weapon caches). Chris and Lucca grew very close being at war together because they depended on each other with their very lives. Lucca also boosted morale as she played with the soldiers and helped them to relax.

Chris and Lucca had many experiences together but one in particular shows Lucca’s true skill. They came upon a compound in Iraq that a US squad had searched and secured. Chris offered to do a sweep of the compound but one of the soldiers explained that they already cleared it. Chris insisted and was given clearance. He took Lucca into the structure and she soon found something. She sniffed under a bench and sat down, indicating that she found something. The soldiers found a cardboard box against the wall packed with IED making materials (Cell phone pieces, wires, and cords that aren’t for typical repairs). The man who owned the compound was outside denying that he lived there. The soldiers wiped his hands for explosives and arrested him on the spot.


Chris became a trainer for dog handlers for the Marines and was forced to give Lucca to another handler. He handed over Lucca’s reins to Rod Rodriquez who became her second and last handler. Rod and Lucca went back to war in Afghanistan and safely located IED’s and weapons caches. Lucca became a legend because she clocked over 400 missions and not one person was ever wounded by an IED on her watch. One day, they received intel that there could be IED’s in a rural field but they had no idea where specifically. As Lucca sniffed the area, she located an IED and motioned to Rod who steered her away while alerting the soldiers to the location. She trotted ahead for a little and then came back towards Rod. Another IED triggered and exploded, severely wounding Lucca. Rod was quick to bandage her up and medevac her to a hospital. Lucca survived the event but lost one of her front legs in the process. She became a decorated soldier who was retired and adopted by former handler Chris. Upon returning to his care, Lucca was welcomed like a hero. She was met with publicity, her landing was announced over the airplane intercom, and her reputation still continues.

Mentioned in the Video



Guest Info



U.S. Marine military working dog

Breed: German shepherd and Belgian malinois

400 Mission career

3 tours in the Middle East

No personnel wounded by IED’s under her watch

Worked along Special Forces and regular infantry

Chris Willingham:

Active Duty Marine Gunnery Sergeant

Former dog handler and trainer

Lucca’s first handler and now owner

BA in Business Management

Wife: Jill

2 children


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