Let slip dogs of war … all 350 of them
“They’re out there every day, on the frontlines,” said Major Chris Ham of the Royal Army
“If the infantry are out on the ground, then the dogs and handlers are out there in front of them, making sure it’s okay to go ahead. They’re basically saving lives.”
The danger that these teams face was brought home starkly in July when Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe, from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, and his dog were killed when their unit came under fire in Afghanistan.
Dogs have played a part in British military operations at least since the Second World War, but since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where crude explosive devices have been put to ever deadlier effect, their use has more than tripled.
Six years ago there were barely 100 dog handlers in the military, now there are around 350, according to Major Ham, and demand is growing all the time.
“This is asymmetric warfare, with the enemy hitting us with improvised explosive devices,” he said. “There’s nothing out there that can find those things as quickly and efficiently as a dog can. Technology isn’t as good in this environment.”
In the heat of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Labradors, springer spaniels and German shepherds enjoy a life of luxury with their own large, air-conditioned kennels.
And where they have to work on hostile terrain, with sharp stones, glass and shrapnel, they are provided with special protective boots for their paws.
But while they may have to work every day for up to two years on the trot, the handlers say they love it.
“With dogs, if they don’t like it, they won’t do it,” said Major Ham. “You can’t force a dog to work. Some dogs get to Afghanistan, find they can’t handle the heat and have to be sent home.”
Such has been their effectiveness that there are now concerns that they have become a target for militants.
The handlers, who stick to one dog to maximise teamwork, cannot say how many lives they may have saved, but they are quick to list successes. A few weeks ago a dog found a linked chain of bombs that could have destroyed several vehicles at once.
But as one of the handlers points out, one of the great things is that the dogs don’t expect much in return. For most, the only reward they want at the end of the day is a game of ball.
“It’s amazing,” said Sergeant Andy Dodds. “They’re out there saving lives and all they’re really after is a ball.”
SINCE the Second World War, dogs have been major recipients of the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.
They have included:
• Judy, an English pointer, who was known for indicating the approach of hostile Japanese aircraft long before any human could hear them.
• Buster, a springer spaniel, unearthed a huge hidden cache of arms from an enemy camp in Iraq in 2003.
• Sam, a German shepherd, serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2003, disarmed a gunman and held back a hostile crowd while guarding a refugee compound
• Sadie, an explosives search Labrador, who last year found a bomb planted under sandbags near the United Nations headquarters in Afghanistan