by Isabel George
I am always, and will no doubt remain, in awe of the power of the partnership of war dog and handler. They are relationships borne out of service, often forged in war and always made for life. And it’s worth saying here and now that the bond between the two is so strong that any attempt to come between them will inevitably fail.
The value of military dogs as an effective ‘soldier’ attracted media attention during the conflict in Afghanistan (2001 -2014). The demand for the unrivaled skills of the Arms and Explosives Search dog, trained to sniff out danger, was never higher. Working on the front line, the dogs proved to be the most effective weapon against the Taliban’s dreaded IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device). Detecting the deadly threat day after day the dogs proved themselves to be man’s ultimate best friend and life-saver.
Military dogs have been saving human lives in conflict since man first ran at their enemy with a spear. Loyal, dependable and adaptable they dutifully took their place at the soldiers’ side. First as a faithful mascot and friend they became a comforting, tangible reminder of home in a hostile environment. Later, as a loyal and trainable asset they took their place on the battlefield.
During the First World War pet dogs, donated by their owners to help the war effort, were trained to carry out a number of valuable tasks. As ambulance dogs they sought out the injured, as messengers they skipped over shell holes and dodged snipers’ bullets faster than a man and as guard dogs they defended their territory to their last breath.
Despite the clear success of canine power in the Great War it took until 1942 for the British Government to support the re-opening of the War Dog Training School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, England. The school had been the brainchild of Colonel Ernest Richardson and it was the skills of the Colonel that were to prove so vital again in preparing war dogs for front line Service in World War II.
This time the dogs were going to prove their worth not only on land but in the air too. In the early hours of D-Day, 6 June 1944, the men of the 13th Parachute Battalion Sniper Recce Platoon took to the skies over Normandy and alongside them their ‘Para Dogs’. In a parachute harness adapted from those used to drop bicycles, a German Shepherd called Bing, descended from the belly of a rumbling Dakota and landed in a tree just short of his designated drop zone. Trapped by his parachute Bing was stranded and exposed to enemy fire until his handler, Lance Corporal Ken Bailey, could move in to rescue him. Shot at and injured in a mortar attack Bing still managed to do his duty and lead the men in his patrol safety through occupied territory to achieve their D-Day objective – capturing the vital Horsa Bridge.
Not all the dogs made it home from their courageous exploits in both World Wars. Memorials to recognize the contribution of Animals in war were erected in the United States, throughout the Commonwealth and in 2010 a memorial was unveiled in London.
The bravery of our four-legged soldiers has also been a constant feature of human conflicts since WWII. The tracker dogs in the Malaya campaign and the war in Vietnam saved and protected their handlers and those who depended on their skills and unstinting devotion to duty. More recently in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan the dogs were there again serving and sacrificing. And more than that they were a comfort to the men and women facing fear and the enemy.
When details of the raid on Osama bin Laden in 2011 hit the headlines there was much praise for one special member of the US commando team – Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, who underwent canine military training equivalent to a US Navy SEAL. Cairo’s mission was to search and secure the perimeter of the bin Laden house, sniff out explosives and, if necessary, be ready to attack. Just like the D-Day dogs before him, Cairo’s high profile role showed the world the respect and trust that exists between the military and the canine warriors.
In the UK the military working dogs trained by the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and Royal Air Force Police are active and respected in times of war and peace. They serve to and protect but their loyalty and devotion is forever for the soldier, sailor or airman who walks at their side.
ISABEL GEORGE, the international bestselling author of Buster: The Military Dog Who Saved a Thousand Lives, writes with a passion and respect for animals in war. A writer and journalist Isabel’s work has appeared in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Guardian Weekend, various pet magazines and women’s consumer magazines such as Living and SHE.
RAF Police Flight Sergeant MICHAEL “WILL” BARROW joined the RAF at 18. He then specialized as a Drugs Detection Dog Handler and an Arms and Explosives Search Dog Handler, and has served in the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.