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Based on a true story and set in 2003, Megan Leavey (Kate Mara) is an aimless teenager living in upstate New York. After her best friend dies due to an overdose, Megan decides the only way to leave behind her small town and difficult mother Jackie (Edie Falco) is to enlist with the Marines. After barely getting through basic training, she is assigned to Camp Pendleton, where she immediately gets into trouble. As part of her punishment, she is assigned to clean the cages of the K-9 bomb detectors. She enjoys her time with the dogs, but she is intimidated by an aggressive German Shepherd named Rex. She approaches the head of the K-9 unit, Gunnery Sergeant Martin (Common), about becoming a dog handler, and he eventually agrees. But since there aren't enough dogs to go around, she has to start practicing her handling with an ammo box in place of a dog.

Several months go by, and Megan is finally assigned a dog, and to her chagrin, it's Rex. He injured his handler, and now she only has a short time to bond with him, since the unit is about to be deployed to Iraq. Rex is a stubborn dog who initially won't listen to her commands, but eventually he begins to do as she says. Things between them get better when she starts to let him sleep in her quarters instead of the kennel (as the only woman in the unit, she has her own room). At this time, Megan also begins a relationship with a fellow handler, Matt Morales (Ramon Rodriguez). Now it's 2005, and the K-9 unit is in Iraq. Megan and Rex are joining in on missions to assist the Marines. Even though at first she makes mistakes that aggravate the Marines, she quickly gets on their good side when she and Rex discover a large cache of weapons. Over the course of several months, Megan and Rex are able to sniff out numerous IED's and other weapons, saving the lives of hundreds of Marines. But while on a mission in Ramadi, Megan and Rex are blown up by an IED buried so deep that Rex couldn't detect it. Both are injured and rushed back to their base, but they recover.

Now back at Camp Pendleton, Megan decides she won't re-enlist. Since Rex is still injured, she believes that he won't be sent back to Iraq, and expresses her desire to adopt him once her time in the Marines is up. Even Sergeant Martin agrees that Rex won't be sent back, and will endorse her adoption. However, she learns that since Rex can still detect bombs despite his injury, he will be going back with a new handler. She goes to Sergeant Martin, who tells her that it was not his decision, and there is nothing he can do about it. This news, combined with the PTSD she is suffering from due to the blast, begins to send Megan into a downward spiral. First, she breaks up with Matt after learning he has decided to re-enlist. Then after returning home, she gets into a fight with her mother and moves out. Now living with her father Bob (Bradley Whitford), she continues to moan and cry about not having Rex with her. Bob tells her that if she wants Rex, she shouldn't moan and cry, but to do something about it. This wakes up her spirit, and she begins a campaign to allow not just her, but all handlers to be able to adopt their dogs once their time in the military is over. She starts a petition, appears on TV talk shows, and even gets a promise from US Senator Chuck Schumer to help.

It's now 2009, and Megan learns that Rex is about to be retired from the Marines due to an illness. She attends the retirement ceremony at Camp Pendleton, where she sees Matt. He's happy to see her, and is glad she appears to be over her PTSD. He also tells her that he volunteered to be the one to tell her that the Marines have agreed to allow her to adopt Rex. Following the ceremony, she and Rex have a tearful reunion. Later, thanks to Senator Schumer, Megan and Rex are honored by her beloved New York Yankees in front of a large crowd at Yankee Stadium, with both of her proud parents in attendance. The movie ends with home movies of the real Megan Leavey and Rex. Title cards state that Rex lived three more years before he passed away. Megan is now a full-time dog handler/trainer, and still does bomb detection at high profile locations like the United Nations.

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With the assistance of Senator Chuck Schumer, Megan is allowed to adopt Rex after he is retired from active duty.

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