For a nation of dog lovers Britain treats its canine veterans shamefully

A messenger dog at Etaples, 28 August 1918. Imperial War Museum

In mid-November, Mali – a British military working dog – was awarded the Dickin Medal (the “animal Victoria Cross”) for his work detecting explosives while a seven-hour gun battle took place in Afghanistan, during which he was severely wounded.

Less than a fortnight later, the British press was reporting that two other military dogs, Dazz and Kevin, both veterans of successful tours of duty detecting IEDS in Afghanistan, were to be destroyed because it was thought too risky to re-home them.

The contrast in the treatment of these dogs could not be more marked: a medal of valour and retirement for one; lethal injection on the cards for two others. It is a contrast that captures the ambiguity that has characterised our attitudes towards military dogs for more than a century. To military bureaucracies they are items of kit, to be disposed of once they are no longer of utility. To their handlers, they are comrades – who, duty done, have earned an honourable retirement. As science provides a growing body of evidence showing the level of dogs’ sentience, it is becoming more and more evident that these incredibly brave animals need to be recognised as more than just tools of war.

Dogs of war

Dogs have long accompanied humans to battle. Greek historian Zonarus wrote how Roman commander Marcus Pomponius, during the occupation of Sardinia in 231 BC, employed “keen-scented dogs from Italy” to track down those resisting his rule to their woodland and subterranean hiding places.

World War I dog rescuing the wounded. Wellcome Images/Wikimedia, CC BY

In the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) continental European soldiers began to realise that dogs offered potential solutions to the challenges of modern firepower on the battlefield. As infantry formations became more dispersed on widely-extended battlefields, locating the wounded became increasingly hard for stretcher-bearers – but not for “keen-scented” dogs.

As rapid-firing, modern small arms, artillery and machine guns consumed ammunition on an unprecedented scale, dogs were pressed into service as draught animals​ keeping front-line soldiers supplied. Sentry and patrol dogs could also warn of the presence of enemy troops long before humans could do so. Thousands of dogs served in these roles in World War I and, even in the most horrendous conditions, proved their worth. As the technology of modern warfare became ever more deadly, dogs rose to new challenges. During World War II they were first deployed as mine detectors, sniffing out buried or hidden explosives.

Retiring Rover

But what to do with the dogs once the fighting was over? In Germany and France, it was recognised, even before World War I had ended, that these intelligent and amenable animals of proven worth could continue to serve. Many remained in military service and others were re-trained as guide dogs for blinded soldiers, or to pull the small carts used by veterans who had lost limbs.

The British attitude was very different. They, alone among the great powers, had rejected the use of dogs for military purposes before World War I, believing them temperamentally unsuited to the conditions of modern battlefields. But the success of French war dogs in action had convinced them of their mistake and they began to make use of them, from late 1916 onwards.

After the Armistice, that curious lack of faith in canine capabilities reasserted itself and the British war dogs were disposed of. Some were adopted by their former handlers and found their way home. One Airedale, called Mike, lived a contented retirement in a Lyme Regis pub, a pampered favourite of the patrons until his death in 1930.

Belgian dogs trained to draw quick firing guns. WE Mason/Wikimedia

Most were not so fortunate. They were sold off in Cologne, where British occupation forces were based, in 1919 for about 20 marks each (approximately £9). The suggestion that the British might do as the French and Germans were doing and train at least some of their dogs to help disabled veterans was rejected. Guide dogs would not be trained in Britain until 1931, by which time most of the former military dogs had died.

The experience after World War II was little better. The army, which by now was beginning to appreciate the value of dogs, kept some and any which had been donated by families during the war were returned to their homes. But strays and other dogs for whom the army no longer had any use were destroyed – among them Rex, a mine detector dog who had been due to receive a medal for his bravery but was put down the day before the medal was to be awarded.

This is a pretty shabby history for a country which boasts of being “a nation of dog lovers” – but it is not one we should be doomed to repeat. Dazz and Kevin are highly trained in the role of sniffing out explosives, so there can be little reason to assume they are incapable of adapting to a quieter life. Experienced handlers have offered them homes: what better, safer custodians, both for the dogs and for those around them, could there be?

They don’t deserve to die, they have been faithful companions. Let’s kill no more of our canine veterans, let them have the retirement they deserve.

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