Thursday, 17 January 2013
Meet the (lovable) dogs of war
They protect British troops and play a vital role in the battle against the Taliban. So what happened when Matt Warren got a little too close to the heroic military dogs serving in Afghanistan?How did it come to this? It is 4pm on an otherwise quiet Friday afternoon and I am standing in the middle of a dusty field, in Afghanistan, facing off a British Army attack dog named Asko.
Five minutes earlier, when I first patted him hello, Asko had nuzzled me with genuine affection, rubbing his wet nose against my cheek. Now, however, he’s straining at the leash. His teeth are bared and there’s a hungry look in his eye. I feel like 180cm of prime Bonio biscuit.
‘Shout at him, and wave your arms around,’ says his handler, Corporal Haywood.
‘Really?’ I ask. ‘Is that a good idea?’
‘Of course. We’ve got to get him really angry; before I set him on you.’
I do as I’m told, reluctantly putting on my best impression of a rioter. I flap and holler and jump around a bit. Asko rises to the challenge. This beautiful, four-year-old Belgian Malinois clearly knows how to play the soft-hearted, pampered pooch when he needs to. But this is Asko in his element – and he’s absolutely terrifying.
‘Whenever you’re ready, turn around and run,’ says Corporal Haywood. ‘When you’ve made it a few yards, I’ll let him off the leash.’
I give Asko a last, lingering look, take a deep breath, twist on my heel and, with my pulse hammering, break into a run. In about five seconds, I’m going to discover what it feels like to be on the sharp end of one of the Army’s bravest – and most ferocious – dogs.
There are more than 100 military dogs serving in Afghanistan. Some, like Asko, provide protection for troops on patrol; others (often Labradors or spaniels) are used to sniff out explosives or ammunition. It is vital, life-saving work – and despite battling harsh conditions (temperatures here regularly reach the mid- 50s in summer), hostile crowds, insurgents and the daily threat of IEDs, they show remarkable bravery. An exceptional handful go on to win the Dickin medal, the highest award for animal courage.
Indeed, this is Asko’s third tour of Afghanistan. On an earlier visit, he took on a stone-throwing mob in the capital, Kabul. With admirable understatement, Corporal Haywood, who serves with the RAF Police, describes him as a ‘great deterrent’.
Fortunately, I have come to our ‘meeting’ well-prepared. It’s slowing my run to a lumbering jog, but I’m wearing what can only be described as an ‘anti-dog suit’. Heavily padded, it’s at least an inch thick and comprises two parts: a jacket – with sleeves that close over the hands – and an extremely cumbersome pair of trousers. On my head is an ice hockey helmet.
The sleeves and legs of the suit are frayed and peppered with the tooth marks of earlier attacks. I look like a well-chewed Michelin man. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t got far when Asko catches me. He leaps, locks on to the back of my jacket and drags me to the ground. I feel as if I’ve been knocked over by a giant, growling cricket bat.
And he’s certainly not letting go. In fact, if it weren’t for Corporal Haywood, who calmly strolls over and orders Asko to release his grip, he would have me face-down in the dust all night.
The ‘baiting’ ordeal over, I pat myself down, slip out of the suit, say my goodbyes to Corporal Haywood and Asko, and meet Captain Caroline Bullard, the vet in charge of the dogs’ welfare. She walks me through the pleasant, spacious kennels where the dogs spend their downtime, and takes me to meet some of the other handlers. There’s Private Hollis with Bart, Private Edwards with sniffer dog Dude and Private Maclauchlan with the gruff-looking Boris. Private Herrgesell is doing a spectacular job of managing Vigo, a Belgian shepherd, that is almost as big as her.
These handlers volunteer for dog training – which includes the ‘baiting’ exercise I have just been subjected to – and are paired up with animals that will be their ‘buddies’ for months, even years. Many go on to permanently adopt their dogs.
Indeed, the bond between the handlers, many of whom are women, and their animals, is extraordinary. On operations, the handlers carry their charge’s food – up to a kilo a day – and stay by their side day and night. They really are brothers, and sisters, in arms.
‘It can be a bit of a struggle getting them on the helicopters,’ laughs Captain Bullard, ‘so you have to be quite persuasive. They’re working dogs, not the type that sit by the fireside and play the odd game of ball. They work in an austere environment and they have to work hard.’
So what sort of medical problems do the dogs face?
‘A lot of them get sore pads from the hard, hot ground,’ she says. ‘But they do get full protection equipment. There are little boots, goggles, ear muffs, all sorts.’
Looking at the whiteboard that lists current patients, I see that one is awaiting root canal surgery. Another, worst luck, is facing castration. ‘In fact, they’ve already gone,’ says Captain Bullard. ‘It all depends on how they get on once they’re here.’
So can the dogs ever get, ahem, amorous? There are, after all, both male and female dogs serving here. ‘Only certain dogs will run together,’ says Captain Laura Riley, second in command of the Military Working Dog Squadron. ‘But if there’s an intact male and an intact female, we’ll keep them apart. We have enough fun out here, without puppies.’
Facing the same dangers as any other frontline soldier, the dogs are hugely valued and get the very best medical care if the worst happens.
‘Humans always come first, but an injured dog will get evacuated from the battlefield by helicopter in the same way that an injured soldier would,’ explains Captain Bullard.
And their sacrifice doesn’t go unnoticed. ‘The British public are amazingly generous,’ she adds. ‘They send over boxes of dog food, treats, and toys. But they are kept on a very strict diet. They don’t – or rather they shouldn’t – get titbits. You’ve got to make sure they don’t get fat.’
And it has to be said that these remarkable dogs deserve all the credit they get. Jerry the spaniel, for example, sniffs out contraband, helping to halt the passage of lethal aid between insurgents. He has undoubtedly saved human lives and unit commanders regularly ask for him by name. He has been tipped for a Dickin medal.
But then all of these dogs are heroes. Being ruffed up by one may have been a terrifying experience, but it was undoubtedly a rare privilege, too. In fact, if Asko’s ever looking for a home, he knows where to find me.
PICTURES: CORPORAL JAMIE PETERS
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