The saying goes that a dog is man’s best friend. At the worst of times – under fire from the enemy, threatened by terrorist bombs, buried beneath rubble or simply a long way from home – dogs show themselves to be not just our best but also our bravest friends.

When the men of B Squadron, the Queen’s Royal Hussars, heard they were leaving their base at Umm Qasr in Iraq last April, one of their concerns was how to get Sandbag, a mongrel, back to Blighty. Born on the forward operating base, he had accompanied them on patrols and survived several bullet near-misses. A 6,000-strong petition ensured Sandbag’s return.

Toby, a two-year-old cocker spaniel cross, recently completed a tour in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province as part of Operation Herrick, preventing arms-trafficking. His colleague, Private Jenna Mayo, said: “Without search dogs, there is a higher risk of ammunition, weapons and explosives being transported illegally. It is nice to be out in Afghanistan with a dog as you are never alone.”
Dogwork sniffing out improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is vital. Sadie, a labrador search dog, was awarded the Dickin Medal (the animal equivalent of the VC) in 2007 for her action in Kabul two years earlier. Sadie and her handler L/Cpl Yardley were with the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry when military personnel serving with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were involved in two separate attacks. They were deployed to search for secondary explosive devices. According to Sadie’s citation, this is what happened next: “Sadie gave a positive indication near a concrete blast wall and multinational personnel were moved to a safe distance. At the site of Sadie’s indication, bomb disposal operators later made safe an explosive device. The bomb was designed to inflict maximum injury.”

We are often accused of being too sentimental about our dogs. But surely this is one way for us to access our feelings about what humans – men and women, family, friends, relatives and strangers – are going through on active service. So don’t be embarrassed to reach for the tissues when reading about these heroic acts by dogs of war.

Rob, a collie, was one of the few dogs to become a member of the SAS. He received the Dickin Medal in 1945 for taking part in landings during the North African Campaign, and for his service with a Special Air Unit in Italy – he made over 20 parachute descents. His presence saved many men from discovery, capture or destruction.

Judy, a pointer, was imprisoned by the Japanese. She received her Dickin medal in 1946: “For magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps, which helped to maintain morale among her fellow prisoners and also for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness.”
Gander received his award posthumously in 2000 for saving the lives of Canadian infantrymen during the Battle of Lye Mun on Hong Kong Island, in 1941. His citation reads: “Twice Gander’s attacks halted the enemy’s advance and protected groups of wounded soldiers. In a final act of bravery, the war dog was killed in action gathering a grenade.”

In 2002 NYPD dog Appollo received an award on behalf of the search and rescue dogs at Ground Zero and the Pentagon following the attacks of 9/11. Their handlers described how: “Faithful to words of command and undaunted by the task, the dogs’ work and unstinting devotion to duty stand as a testament to those lost or injured.”

An equally daunting task faced guide dogs Salty and Roselle on 9/11. Trapped in the twin towers, they stayed, “loyally at the side of their blind owners, courageously leading them down more than 70 floors of the World Trade Center and to a place of safety”.

For me, it is the action of Buster, a springer, which sums up how we feel about our heroes and their dogs. He was awarded the Dickin Medal: “In March 2003… in Iraq… Arms and explosives search dog, Buster, located an arsenal of weapons and explosives hidden behind a false wall in a property linked with an extremist group.” He “is considered responsible for saving the lives of service personnel and civilians. Following the find, all attacks ceased and shortly afterwards troops replaced their steel helmets with berets.”


The Dickin Medal

The PDSA Dickin Medal was inaugurated during the Second World War to recognise extreme bravery by serving animals of all species.

From then to the present, the Dickin medal has been awarded to these dogs: Bob, mongrel (1944); Jet, alsatian (1945)­; Irma, alsatian (1945)­; Beauty, wire-haired terrier (1945); Rob,collie (1945); Thorn, alsatian (1945); Rifleman Khan, alsatian (1945); Rex, alsatian (1945); Sheila, collie (1945); Rip, mongrel (1945); Peter, collie (1945); Judy, pointer (1946); Punch and Judy, boxer dog and bitch (1946); Ricky, collie (1947); Brian, alsatian (1947); Antis, alsatian (1949); Tich, Egyptian mongrel (1949); Gander, Newfoundland (2000, posthumously); Appollo, German shepherd (2002;) Salty and Roselle, labrador guide dogs (2002); Sam, German shepherd (2003); Buster, springer spaniel (2003); Lucky, German shepherd (2007, posthumously); Sadie, labrador (2007).