Date: Thursday July 25, 2019 at 2:42pm
leaving school & working in a factory making helmets, Andy decided he
wanted out. With limited choices, he decided to join the British Army.
Following basic training, I became an Airborne Supply
Specialist, but my error was to apply for as many courses as I could, from
Medic to Jungle & 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, 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 & even when regiments went to
some parts of Northern Ireland, it was only for 6 months. How was I was going
to survive 6 months let alone 2 years? But this was a unique unit as everyone
was a volunteer.
At the end of 2 years I was promoted to Lance Corporal
and asked if I would like to extend for a further 2 years. I agreed without a
second thought and was sent to the Maze Prison to take charge of C Section of 20 dogs and
There were a few dogs who had reputations – Dixon, Jebel,
Prince and a 108 pounds of a black German Shepherd 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 kennel he immediately
attacked 6 police officers and was sent back to Melton Mowbray & then onto
the Maze. He had chewed a Scot’s Guard handler, his next handler took 4 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, I took 2 weeks leave and stayed outside Sebastian’s
kennel reading newspapers, 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, 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. 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 I asked, 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.
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. 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).
Time flew and my 4 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
sunshine posting in store for me. No such luck. The CO asked me to
stay for another 2 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
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
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 e.g. holding the crowds back, snatch
squads, also close protection of VIPs, patrolling prisons and cell clearance.
On one occasion Sebastian and I were called to get two prisoners out of a cell.
The remaining prisoners were 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 superhero
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 6-year tour
was coming to an end and my final 2 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
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.