The British Army has been reliant on animals from the very beginning, and despite the huge advances in technology and the vast array of equipment that we are using today, there are some tasks for which I suspect animals could never be replaced.
That aside, the British Army soldier has always had a very close relationship with animals, whether official or unofficial. Some of our infantry units even have animal mascots with regimental numbers and ranks to boot, and we have had dogs that have earned medals for valour – The Dickin Medal is touted as the animal version of the Victoria Cross and was awarded by Princess Alexandra to Treo the Labrador last year for Gallantry.
On numerous occasions and on numerous deployments I have seen battle-hardened men pouring affection on stray dogs that happen to frequent their bases, and often try to adopt them.
I remember in Bosnia, in the deep snow of Mrkoni Grad where we were holed-up in an old, windy bus depot, there was a huge mongrel, clearly the alpha male, that used to lay in the snow (tackle-down unbelievably!!!) permanently surveying his empire, confident that as each unit passed through on its six-month rotation, someone would make sure that he was well looked after.
In Afghanistan, military dogs are a vital part of our team and have saved innumerable lives in their various guises.
In Lashkar Gah we have our own dog section responsible for ensuring that any vehicle or people that come onto camp do not bring in more than we bargained for.
I went to see the dog section this week to see what they were up to, although this was obviously just a thinly disguised ploy to get to play with the dogs!
Whilst there I met Panchio, a black Labrador that works as an Arms Explosive Search (AES) dog together with his handler, Lance Corporal Natasha Mooney.
They are very much a team and spend most of their time out on patrol with the infantry, with Panchio’s special skills adding to the range of equipment that our soldiers carry to protect themselves against some of the more unsavoury weapons that the insurgents are using against us and the Helmandis.
I also met Milly, who specialises as a vehicle search dog, with her handler Private Ian Russell in tow.
Milly looks after the gates at Lashkar Gah and is an expert at detecting the scent of all sorts of unwanted material. She is used to search the large trucks that come onto our camp. In this way, we are able to use local contractors, putting money into the local economy and providing jobs for the local nationals without compromising the security of everyone on the camp. Milly is therefore contributing directly both to our safety and to the livelihoods of many locals.
The dogs here are very well looked after. They have air-conditioned kennels, although they need to acclimatise as much as we do so we can’t pamper them too much. That said, there is only one official swimming pool in our bases in Helmand and it’s not for the humans!
The military working dogs remain very special to us. They protect us, they save lives, and they maintain the British Army tradition of working in close harmony with animals.
Long may that tradition continue.