Published: Thu 30 May 2013
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The second instalment of this documentary series returns to the front line in Afghanistan as the dog squadron go out on patrol detecting explosives and saving lives.
Back in Britain the programme visits the horses of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and sees a new recruit getting ready to pass out and pull his first gun.
A veterinary officer explains what happens to the dogs when they end their service, and he looks after a dog that has accidentally swallowed some explosives.
Plus, Animal Heroes speaks to the mother of one dog handler who was killed in action.
In Afghanistan the 105 Military Working Dog Squadron are seen at the training ground where explosives have been planted. Corporal Mark Ginger explains how the dogs use their noses to detect a change in the ground. When they pick up the scent of an explosive they come back to their handler.
Cpl Ginger, and his dog Jerry, are seen as they inspect cargo before it is loaded onto a plane.
Cpl Ginger tells the programme: “They’ve found so much lethal aid on this tour, hopefully, for the future, the next tour and the tour after, we’ve taken that off the ground so we’ve prevented someone getting hurt by those weapons and explosives.
“And Jerry’s done a very small part of that. This is his third tour and I’d like to think his last one. Three’s enough for anyone.”
But before Jerry can think about going home, he and Cpl Ginger go on patrol and Jerry detects a hidden container with explosives in just ten metres from another device in place.
A proud Cpl Ginger tells the programme: “We understand each other. I can’t ask anymore from him. Hopefully we’ve taken stuff off the ground that might have hurt somebody.”
Sergeant Tony Bryson shows Animal Heroes around the training ground where a replica Afghan compound has been created, complete with goats, chickens and all their feed and bedding. Sgt Bryson explains that this is the one area of camp that they can’t have neat and tidy, they need to leave it realistic for the dogs to practise hunting for dangerous items.
Sgt Bryson says: “These guys are under a lot of stress. There’re quite a lot of people counting on them. It’s part of my job to relieve some of the stress and help them out with their training. Help them out with handling the dogs and training the dogs to search ahead when the troops need to move forward. Sometimes a problem shared is a problem halved.”
Back in Britain, veterinary officer Major Drew Tootall explains to the programme about the regular checks that the army dogs have to undergo to make sure that they are still fit to work.
As he examines a German Shepherd, he says: “These dogs work hard and we do ask a lot of them. So when the time comes, if they’re not comfortable and we can’t keep them on the road, we make a decision about what we’re going to do with them and what the future holds for them.
“A lot of the dogs, in their service dog records, will have letters of application for re-homing, often from their handlers. If not, they can go to members of the public. There’s a lot of dogs very happy. Retired service dogs lying by the fire.”
Sadly, Maj Tootall has to meet one dog, Phoenix, who, after eight years of service, can no longer work and is too dangerous to be re-homed. There are emotional scenes as his dog-handler is with him as Maj Tootle puts him to sleep.
Maj Tootall also meets Gracie, the black Labrador detection dog who accidentally ate some explosive that she had found. Gracie was suffering from fits when she went to visit Maj Tootall. The Major explains to the programme that there is no antidote for the explosives inside Gracie and that she will just have to be monitored until it passes through her system, but she is expected to make a full recovery.
Animal Heroes also visits the Woolwich Barracks, home to the 111 horses of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
The horses are seen as they practice pulling the giant wheeled guns and Sgt Tanya Tyson introduces Frank, a horse who is just about to have his passing out ceremony. Sgt Tyson explains to the programme that once he does, Frank will have his mane shaved off. All the horses in the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery have shaved manes, a tradition which started so horses at war could be kept clean easily.
The documentary also catches up with the dog handling trainees at the Defence Animal Centre as they get bitten by their dogs for the first time. In an exercise, the dogs are held on their leads as their handlers approach them with protective guards on their arms and encourage the dogs to grab them. The trainees and officers explain how this is an important part of training to relieve tension and create bonding between the dogs and the handlers.
Private Zina Saunders says: “These dogs are technically a weapon so if you don’t train them correctly and maintain that training then they’re not going to be able to do their job correctly when they’re required to do it. It’s training for us as well, obviously different dogs work in different ways.”
The trainees are seen being put through their paces out on fitness exercises and as the officers perform routine inspections in their rooms. If they can’t look after their rooms and selves, then they won’t be trusted to look after the animals.
Plus, Animal Heroes tells the tragic story of Lance Corporal Liam Tasker who was killed in 2011 when he was on patrol with his spaniel Theo. The pair was the most successful on their tour, credited with 14 lethal finds.
Theo died shortly after LCpl Tasker and Animal Heroes is there when the spaniel is posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal. Spaniel Grace accepts the award on Theo’s behalf and LCpl Tasker’s mum says: “It means the world because this is what Liam would have wanted for Theo. He actually spoke about it with colleagues when he was in Afghanistan and put pen to paper about Theo to put him forward for the PDSA Dickin Medal.
“Liam was shot and Theo died…after. I’m convinced Theo died of a broken heart to be with Liam. There’s no other thing to say why Theo died. He just had a seizure and died. To me they’re together now.”