The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing - in the public domain - until Tuesday 28 May 2013.
Across the world British service men and women are risking life and limb for their country. Now, in this three-part series for ITV, we meet the four-legged friends who are working at their side.
With access to the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, the series shows at close quarters the vital work the animals do, and how they are trained and looked after by the unit’s team of veterinary surgeons, handlers and nurses dedicated to the welfare of the 1500 animals serving in the military.
Directed by Chris Malone, who made ITV’s critically acclaimed Strictly Kosher series, Animal Heroes follows progress from the parade grounds of the UK to the frontlines of Afghanistan, entering the world of these young soldiers who train and serve with the dogs that are credited with saving hundreds of British lives.
The series provides an insight into the range of dogs used and how they fit into the ‘protect and detect’ function required, from German Shepherds and Labradors to the cutest spaniels who can locate even the smallest quantities of high explosive and the savage looking Belgian Malinois who guard perimeters. All of these highly specialized dogs are trained from puppies to be critical members of the armed forces.
But it’s not just dogs that serve in the British Army. The ceremonial horses of the Household Cavalry also fall under the watchful eyes of the Veterinary Corps. We’ll find out how the RAVC keep 300 hundred horses healthy, safe and ready for duty every day of the year.
In this series the young men and women who specifically choose to serve with the RAVC talk passionately about the bonds they share with their animals, the challenges the animals face working in such hostile environments and the day to day work which aims to ensure the health and well-being of every animal at war.
The first episode in the series meets the vets and handlers looking after the 1000 dogs and 500 horses that serve with the British military.
Many have come from backgrounds a world away from the military such as entering Britain’s Got Talent with their dogs, hairdressing and fitting car windscreens. The documentary tracks their training alongside that of the animals in their charge, providing an insight into how they form bonds with these incredible creatures.
Ultimately, some of the recruits will end up on the frontline and the reality of life in a theatre of war for the troops and their dogs is shown. One soldier at war introduces his Labrador, Sawyer, who is on his second tour of Afghanistan.
And at the UK training centre Malinois puppies are seen being put through their paces to see which will be selected to become protection dogs.
The programme also sees trainee dog handlers being given their dogs for the first time and taught how to do everything with them from groom them to unleashing them to attack.
The full range of care and support is featured, from vets in Afghanistan explaining how they care for dogs shot or involved in explosions, while their counterparts back in London are shown looking after the horses that serve in the Household Cavalry.
Plus, Animal Heroes captures the emotional moment when one unit kennel their dogs on a plane and start their ten-hour journey to a six-month stint serving on the frontline in Afghanistan.
Animals have served in almost every conflict since the Second World War, but now, only dogs go out to the frontline.
Explosives search dogs can detect even the smallest amounts of explosives that machinery can miss, and Animal Heroes shows them being trained to reach this highly-skilled level. As Improvised Explosive Devices have taken the lives of over half the troops killed in action, they are invaluable to the armed forces, with almost every patrol now led by a search dog.
Marine Ollie Steadman, who handles Sawyer, a golden Labrador detection dog, explains their role is to search for hidden explosives in open fields as the marines move from compound to compound.
And he describes the positive effect the presence of a dog can have on his colleagues. He says: “Having a dog, it’s just full of morale, especially if the lads are missing home and stuff like that. Everyone comes over and gives him a fuss.”
All of the dogs serving in the army start their career at the RAVC’s working home, the Defence Animal Centre in Leicestershire. Here the dogs are chosen as puppies, trained and sent to war when they are 18 months old.
Private Kate Nicholas has been training dogs since getting her first puppy when she was just a child. In 2008 she got through to the finals of talent show Britain’s Got Talent, but now Kate is in the army training dogs to work on the front line detecting explosives.
Kate tells the programme: “Teaching a dog to use it’s nose to search for explosives is a bit more important but the lines are the same. The dog is working for a toy and it’s doing it because it enjoys it.”
Corporal David Biggadyke explains how he is teaching his 18-month-old spaniel, Bracken, to detect a new scent. The detection dogs can be trained to identify up to ten scents which is invaluable when they are searching up to 45 vehicles a day in a war zone.
The programme shows Bracken as he works his way around a carousel of containers holding various different substances. Cpl Biggadyke waits to see if Bracken can correctly identify the container holding a substance used for detonating a bomb. Once Bracken has located the detonating substance, Cpl Biggadyke hides some in a lorry and puts Bracken to the ultimate test to see if he can find it behind closed doors.
Out in Afghanistan the programme visits Camp Bastion to see the kennels where the dogs live and to meet the vets and handlers who work with them at war.
Army Veterinarian, Captain Caroline Bullard tells the programme: “The stuff you’re dealing with here are the ones which come in off the ground which have been injured, so dogs which have got shrapnel from blasts which has gone through them or injured them. Or if they’ve been shot, you see puncture wounds. We’ve had a couple of dogs which have been involved in major blasts.”
In the past decade, six dogs have died on operations.
Veterinary Technician Lance Corporal Laura Wallace adds: “The hardest bit is to see the handlers, especially if they’ve lost their dogs. It’s like their child. They absolutely love their dogs and seeing their reaction to their injured dog can be worse than seeing the dog itself for us.”
LCpl Wallace is seen treating spaniel Ronnie, who injured his paw when he stepped on something sharp during a night time patrol.
Cpl Kassie Giles explains to Animal Heroes how she and her dog, Molly, search vehicles entering the camp for explosives and drugs. Molly is seen at work as she investigates every inch of the lorries which pull up at Camp Bastion’s gates. Cpl Giles explains that if Molly detects anything she has to give a passive indication and then Cpl Giles must get her away from the vehicle and raise the alarm.
She adds: “We’ve had indications, though nothing’s ever come of it. It got my heart rate going.”
Molly is also regularly tested with explosive scents in dummy wagons to make sure she can still detect the right scents. Kassie tells the programme that she is dreading the heart-breaking moment when her six-month service comes to an end and she has to leave Molly behind in Afghanistan.
Back in the UK, Captain Claire Budge is over seeing the arrival of the latest recruits to the Household Cavalry.
Lieutenant Colonel Richard Pope explains what they are looking for when they buy new horses: “In the main we’re looking for presence. It’s got to have that, ‘Wow, that caught my eye.’
“So we’re looking for weight carriers, in the main, and horses of a particular colour. So most of the horses in the Household Cavalry will be blacks.”
The horses hooves are branded with their army number which stays with them throughout their career. They spend time at the Defence Animal Centre each summer for a break before being driven back to Knightsbridge to start their service again.
Animal Heroes follows the latest herd to arrive back in London to Army Veterinary Surgeon Major Ann O’Flynn.
Maj O’Flynn tells the programme: “The horses arrive back from their grass rest and there’ll be some old favourites like long lost children and others we’re less fond of, ‘Oh no, that horse is back.’
“They’re military working horses, so they’re here to do a job. So they’ll come in from their holiday in the fields, they’re brought inside and in six weeks time they’ll be on parade for a state visit.”
One horse, Abigail, is being treated for her injured back legs after she ran away at Sandhurst and got stuck in a cattle grid.
Maj O’Flynn adds: “This job is totally unique in the British Army. It’s a fantastic role to be part of history and for me it’s the chance of a lifetime, so that’s what gets me out of bed in a morning.”
Animal Heroes also meets the new recruits at the Defence Animal Centre who have signed up to become animal handlers. The RAVC is one of the few units in the British Army which allows women to operate as specialists alongside infantry units – out of the 16 new recruits, nine are women who want to learn how to handle dogs and then be deployed on operations.
The recruits are seen as they settle into their accommodation, go out on exercises and then eventually meet their dogs for the first time.
Pte Nicola Parfrement says: “I found out I had Gudy. She’s a retired police dog. To be honest it was love at first sight. I couldn’t put it any other way.”
The trainees must learn to look after their dogs, clean their kennels and groom them before they are eventually allowed to release them to attack in a training exercise.
Pte Toby Williams, whose dog is called Juri, says: “At the end of the day it’s a weapon. The dogs that we use can do damage. When you’ve got the dog you’ve got the responsibility. You’ve got to know whether it’s the right time to release your dog or not.”