Published: 03/09/2015 15:09 - Updated: 02/09/2015 15:17

Superstar treatment for the coveted dogs of war

Stephen Paul Stewart on assignment in Afghanistan.
Stephen Paul Stewart on assignment in Afghanistan.

WHEN the British army talks about putting feet on the ground, some of those feet come in sets of four.

Often overlooked despite their lifesaving work, Britain’s canine soldiers and their contribution to the Afghan campaign are now given their due in A Soldier’s Best Friend, written by Scottish journalist Stephen Paul Stewart and published by Dingwall’s Sandstone Press.

Stewart, who is a guest of Nairn Book & Arts Festival on Friday, has seen those four legged soldiers at work at first hand when he joined the Fort George based Black Watch in Afghanistan in 2009.

"The thing that struck me, was how many of these dogs there were," he said.

"There were lines of guys waiting to go on Chinook helicopters and every single line had a guy with his dog in front.

"People know about Afghanistan, sadly, through the news, but they don’t realise these dogs are out there saving lives."

That was brought home to him when he joined mission to break up a Taliban explosives factory.

"The dog handlers were the first out of the helicopter," Stewart said.

"Then, at the end of the operation, again it was a dog handler leading the way — a guy I had met earlier and his dog Benji.

"You were always taught to walk in the steps of the person in front of you because if you stepped off the path, something bad might happen. That’s what we were doing because Benji had cleared the path. I thought it was quite ironic that my life depends on how good this dog is — I’ve put my whole life into the paws of a dog."

Stewart returned to Afghanistan in 2013, but this time as a soldier rather than a journalist, with 2 Scots the Royal Highland Fusiliers.

"When you are there for an embed, you are there for a couple of weeks and you get a taste of it, but you don’t get the full picture," he explained.

That tour included a posting to the British army’s most remote outpost, Observation Post Dara where his unit was joined by a female handler and a guard dog ensuring that some of the less friendly locals kept their distance.

This is just one of many roles carried out by dogs in Afghanistan. There are also dogs trained to sniff out arms and explosives and the drugs sold to fund their purchase, tracker dogs and others that specialise in searching vehicles.

The breed and size of dogs also varies, from German shepherds through Labradors and Belgian Malinois to smaller spaniels, and although they were serving in a war zone, they were far from unhappy conscripts.

"People get an impression the army is all about big sergeant majors shouting at people," Stewart said.

"They don’t do that with the dogs. With them it’s all about positive reinforcement. When they search and find stuff, it’s a game, and at the end, when they find the bomb or whatever, they get their toy.

"It’s not a case that the dogs are mistreated. It’s absolutely the opposite. They are treated like superstars."

War dog Benji and handler Ed Buckland.
War dog Benji and handler Ed Buckland.

A handler’s focus will always be on the dog, first and foremost, Stewart points out. Before they find shade and water for themselves, their priority is to attend to their animals.

"Not to put too fine a point on it, if the dog’s off its game, people could die, so the dogs are treated like royalty," he said.

And not just by their handlers, a large proportion of whom are female. There was a temptation by the other soldiers to spoil the dogs, especially the "cuddlier" breeds, Stewart acknowledged, because for the soldiers stationed far off in Afghanistan, they are a reminder of home.

On the other hand, dogs spent more time in Afghanistan than their human counterparts.

While soldiers could expect a gap of 18 months or more between Afghan tours, the dogs can do several back to back, with one doing five in a row with a number of handlers.

Four dogs have been awarded the Dickin Medal — viewed as the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross — for their service in Afghanistan, tragically half of them posthumously following incidents in which their handlers also died.

For those that survive, they can find themselves returned to Britain and used to train new handlers, while some older dogs have been adopted by their handlers and "retire" into civilian life, although Stewart warns that this is not as simple a process as you might expect.

However, old habits die hard for these military veterans.

"I went to see a guy in East Kilbride who had adopted one of his old dogs and you could tell it was an old military dog," he laughed.

"As soon as you stepped into the house, it was alert and sniffing you out."

• Stephen Paul Stewart will appear at Nairn Little Theatre at 6.45pm on Friday 4th September as part of the town’s 12th Book & Arts Festival.

A Soldier’s Best Friend is published by Sandstone Press.

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