Dog Squad Blog – Soldier Dogs and Their Handler

We go back to the seventies for today’s blog from my friend Andy who grew up in Llanbradach. After leaving school and working in a factory making helmets he decided he wanted out. With limited choices, Andy decided to join the British Army.

Here’s what happened.

Following basic training, I became an Airborne Supply Specialist, which involved pushing whatever it was out of Hercules planes with 16 Parachute Heavy Drop Company, RAOC. But my error was to apply for as many courses as I could, from Medic, to Jungle and Arctic Warfare. The course I coveted most was that of Dog Handler, which I knew would help overcome my fear of German Shepherds. When my application was approved, I was packed off to Melton Mowbray to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps where they trained both animals and squaddies.

The course was brilliant and I passed with flying colours. Unfortunately, I hadn’t looked at the small print when applying but now discovered: after passing the course you will be sent on attachment to the Army Dog Unit Northern Ireland for two years. It was the height of the so-called troubles and even when regiments went to some parts of Northern Ireland, it was only for six months. I wondered how I was going to survive six months let alone two years. But this was a unique unit as everyone was a volunteer and the unit has been served by every Regiment and Corps.

During my first six months, I learned so many things from my fellow members and the dog I was given. Guard Dog Sand was a cross between a Rhodesian Ridgeback and Labrador. We became a real team, patrolling HMP Maze, HMP Magilligan and on point on patrols in Co Londonderry and Co Armagh and also during riots.

At the end of two yearsI was promoted to lance corporal and asked if I would like to extend for a further two years. I agreed without a second thought and was sent to the Maze Prison to take charge of C Sectionof 20 dogs and handlers.

There were a few dogs who had reputations – Dixon, Jebel, Prince and a 108 pounds of a black German Shepherd named Sebastian. The history with this dog soldier was a horror story. He was sent to the Hong Kong police as a gift from the British Army. When taken out of his sky kennel he immediately attacked six police officers and was sent back to Melton Mowbray and then onto the Maze. He had chewed a Scot’s Guard handler, his next handler took four weeks to enter his kennel, and the same for the next. The following handler failed and the decision was made to destroy Sebastian. I found this too much and voiced my opinion and the reply came back from my Sergeant:

‘Thanks for volunteering Max!’

This frightened me more than going out on patrol but I took two weeks leave and stayed outside Sebastian’s kennel reading newspapers and books, talking, or doing anything I could think of. I spent days throwing tennis balls into Sebastian’s kennel hoping for some sort of interaction but nothing came, until day 13 when he picked the ball up and brought it to me at the front of his kennel. I told him to sit and to my amazement he did! This was a major breakthrough and was followed by an order for me to take Sebastian straight out on the outer patrol of the Maze. So I had to go in clip him up and walk out with him. It was like going into a gladiator’s arena and while I did so, 15 men (2 in full baiting suits) were on standby with hoses, brushes, and one with a 9mm handgun. With dry throat and a cold sweat I walked into this beast’s domain. I called Sebastian and he came running over to me. I found this most intimidating but I gave the command ‘sit’.

He did as told and I clipped the lead on Sebastian and we went straight out on the outer perimeter of the Maze. The smiles of my fellow handlers as I walked out was so rewarding; any doubts about me quickly turned to respect.

From that day on we grew stronger as a working dog team, being called out for cell clearance, riots and hard patrolling. As our successes grew so did our reputation, throughout Northern Ireland. I can honestly say this dog saved my life and the lives of lots of others on many occasions. I never once questioned his reactions and trusted him one hundred percent. We knew each other’s footsteps one for one. I felt as if I had a bulletproof Ready Brek glow about me and my partner Sebastian (you have to be a certain age to remember the Ready Brek advert).

We worked in areas such as West Belfast, Armagh, Londonderry, Forkhill and Crossmaglen. Time flew and my four years soon came to an end.

I was told to attend a meeting with the Commanding Officer and ordered to be on my best behaviour. I was marched into the room and carried out the normal army greetings of salute and standing ramrod straight as my whole body was on Viagra! I wasn’t sure why I was in there and suspected some sort of family emergency, but the CO’s tone was not that bad. I even wondered if it was good news and perhaps they had a sunshineposting in store for me. No such luck. The CO asked me to stay for another two years.

I grinned like an idiot when he read out our achievements and told me we were the Army Dog Unit’s best asset. I was chuffed to be asked to stay on and my ‘yes sir’ was the most enthusiastic and proudest I have ever said.

All Army dogs were trained to the highest standards and saved thousands of lives in their roles as search explosive dogs (known as wagtails), tracking dog (known as groundhogs), or guard dogs (called snappers or land sharks).

Sebastian and I grew stronger as a team and won many conflicts. It was a lot more than love that I had for this dog. I respected and trusted him and put my life in his hands on many occasions. He was a soldier as much as I was and a highly trained Army weapon too.

We were used for what the Army called hard patrols, where the dog team was at the front point of the patrol and would pick up the scent of anyone in front of the patrol. Then we were also used in riots for many tasks eg holding the crowds back, snatch squads, also close protection of VIPs, patrolling prisons and also cell clearance. On one occasion Sebastian and I were called to get two prisoners out of a cell. The remaining prisoners where locked in their cells and the prison officers had drawn back to the reception of the wing while Sebastian and I walked to the cell accompanied by two soldiers in full riot gear. The prisoners would shout abuse, spit, and throw whatever they could – including cups full of urine. This only heightened the dog up to switch on mode. The prisoners were hidden behind the door with weapons ready to attack us both. Sebastian with his nose and super hero sense walked into the cell and without hesitation turned to the left and nailed the prisoner holding the metal bed leg. The man dropped to the ground and yelled. Sebastian looked up at the same time jumping and grabbed the second prison by the upper arm. Both prisoners had given up in a matter of seconds. The sense of achievement from this result and many similar has never been matched since leaving Northern Ireland.

My six yeartour was coming to an end as my final two months were spent training a new handler to take over Sebastian. The day I said farewell and thanked him for being at my side was one of the saddest of my life. It was only a few weeks later that I received a call from a fellow dog handler who told me of Sebastian’s sad end.

Every dog is a unique individual with its own skills and personality. I’ve always put my dog’s needs before my own and each one I have had or worked with has been loved with all my heart.

My Unlikely Soldiers series is about the British Army during this period. Check out this link for further information

“Written with passion, humour and knowledge, Unlikely Soldiers is a riveting coming of age tale. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a good story, I’m waiting for the sequel with baited breath.”