Working animals almost exclusively dogs and horses play indispensable roles in the activities of the UK Armed Forces, the former operational and the latter ceremonial. Dim Jones details the DATR approach.

It should not be forgotten that almost every aspect of a Military Working Dog’s role puts both dog and handler in harm’s way. In few other circumstances, perhaps, is teamwork better encapsulated; a security patrol at night in the dead of winter is a pretty lonely situation, and one in which – if things turn pear-shaped – the two team members will rely critically on each other.

Between March 2007 and April 2014, nine dogs and two of their Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) handlers were killed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Buster, a Springer Spaniel AES dog, completed five tours of duty in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, was credited with saving many lives due to early detection of IEDs and explosives, and was awarded the Dickin Medal (the canine equivalent of the Victoria Cross) for his discovery of an arms and explosives cache in the Iraqi town of Safwan in 2003. Incidentally, he also shared a Warrior AIFV with my son in Al Amarah in 2004. He retired in 2011, aged 13, and died at the home of his former handler at the ripe old age of 17.

The DATR consists of a Headquarters and three Squadrons – Equine, Canine and Veterinarian – and it is the second of these on which this report will concentrate. All three Services use Military Working Dogs (MWD), although the Royal Navy much less than the other two. There are also dogs employed by the Ministry of Defence Police and the Military Provost Guarding Service (MPGS). The DATR was formed from the amalgamation of separate Army and RAF schools in the 1990s, and its staff comprises Army, MPGS and RAF personnel (85, 25 and 22 respectively and, therefore, an Army lead) plus 98 civil servants, who carry out administrative, field hand, grooming, instructional and kennel staff functions. As becomes quickly apparent, DATR’s ‘equipment’ is live, and care for it is a 24/7 business.

Dog handlers in the Army are members of the RAVC and in the Air Force of the RAF Police. A dog handler in the Army will join to perform that role, and the branch is large enough to afford a credible career path, there being three posts at Warrant Officer First Class (WO1/RSM) rank. He or she will complete Basic Training alongside soldiers of other cap badges and will complete the basic dog handling course at DATR as Initial Trade Training (ITT); this course lasts about nine weeks. RAF personnel are policemen first, and will train initially in a general policing role, applying to become dog handlers at a later stage. They may then transfer back, either temporarily or permanently, to general policing in order to satisfy career path requirements. On leaving the DATR, Army working dogs and their handlers will join the operational unit, No 1 Military Working Dog Regiment (1MWDR) at North Luffenham, not far from Melton Mowbray. From there, they will be deployed on detachment as operational commitments, both domestic and overseas, demand. The RAF Police operate Dog Sections on the Main Operating Bases (MOBs) and other sensitive sites.

Patrol, Police and Search Dogs

There are several categories of dog, depending on the role to be performed. On the guarding side, the basic is the Patrol Dog, which will generally patrol an enclosed area, in which it is not expected to come into regular contact with the public. If an intruder is identified and fails to respond to the handler’s warnings – the basic ROE, as in other fields, being minimum use of force – the dog may be released and is trained to bite and arrest the intruder.

A higher state of training is required for a Police Dog, which can be used for tracking (a few dogs are specialist trackers), for article search, and for ‘stand-off’ in which the dog can apprehend an intruder or suspect without direct contact, unless it becomes necessary. Infantry Patrol Dogs can also be deployed to accompany – and, indeed, lead – a dismounted unit, to alert them to the presence of other people, i.e. potential enemies.

Arms & Explosive Search (AES) dogs are used for specialist tasks, such as clearing a route or area by locating explosives, weapons, ammunition and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the timely detection of which has prevented multiple casualties on operations. Within the AES category there are also specialist roles, such as vehicle and aircraft search and, lastly, there are ‘drugs’ dogs, whose role is to detect illegal narcotics, and which can be used for all areas, including search of the person.

The Canine Squadron at DATR is home to around 230 dogs of all categories at any one time, of which 150 will be under training, 60 supporting handler courses, and 20 receiving veterinary care or rehabilitation.

These comprise various breeds, according to the roles required of them and the characteristics and temperament required for those roles. Many Patrol Dogs are German Shepherds, and Belgian Shepherds – which are generally smaller – and a few Dutch Herders are also used in the Patrol Role. There are four types of Belgian Shepherd, of which the most commonly found in the UK Armed Forces is the Malinois; Malinois can also be used in the Police Dog roles. Other breeds, such as the German Short-Haired Pointer (GSP), Vizsla and Weimaraner have been used in search roles, since they are bred for hunting and pointing, although the majority of AES and drugs dogs are those bred for search and retrieve, such as Springer Spaniels, Labradors and Retrievers.

DATR does not breed its own dogs, which is an extremely resource-consuming and expensive business. MWD are all bought as adult animals and will have been partially trained by their suppliers. They are selected for their characteristics, such as speed, stamina, courage, temperament and nose, and there is fierce competition for the best dogs from the most reputable and trusted suppliers.

Training the Dog, Instructing the Handler

The use of terms such as ‘trainer’ and ‘instructor’ and especially that of ‘train the trainer’ can sometimes lead to confusion about who is doing what and to whom. In the DATR environment, ‘instruction’ is applied to people, and ‘training’ to dogs. The nine-week basic course teaches the trainee to handle the dog, how to care for it, including veterinary first aid, and how to employ basic patrol skills. Academic courseware is contained in personal student iPads, and they also prepare for the course with distance learning. Following successful completion of ITT, dogs and handlers undertake further specialist courses, such as AES, VS, Police, Tracker and IP. These are tailored to the role the dog is expected to perform; for instance, for a Patrol or Police Dog performing arrest or stand-off, the hapless fugitive in the protective suit – a qualified handler now further skilled as a Practical Training Assistant – is actually the one training the dog, once it is released, in carrying out its role and, by transference, its handler.

All training is centred on rewards, ‘positive reinforcement.’ The training of a search dog is initially much like that of a gundog, using a retrieve article, and then progresses to the operational search target, be it drugs or explosives. There are indoor and outdoor facilities at Melton Mowbray, where the dogs can be exposed to different search areas and surfaces, such as sand or gravel, and concrete, wood and linoleum flooring, in and around which are concealed bricks containing traces of the target substances. Although the facilities and grounds at Melton Mowbray are extensive, they can become very ‘samey’ to both dog and handler, and great efforts are made to get out and find new and challenging environments in the local area and further afield. For instance, DATR has a working arrangement with the local branch of an automotive supply chain, where the dogs can search for target substances masked by unfamiliar smells, and with a nearby haulage contractor, who allows his vehicles to be searched. Various organisations have allowed use of their arenas and venues for exercises, and training is also carried out on airport baggage carousels. Lastly, experienced handlers will return to DATR for training as instructors.

Nor does the training cease when a qualified MWD team leaves the DATR; it is a constantly evolving process. A handler and dog will generally remain together as long as is reasonably practical, but it is not uncommon for either to team with several different partners during a working career. Most dogs cope well with ‘re-teaming’; some are more problematic and, although otherwise well suited to the Patrol or Police Dog roles, do not generally respond positively to re-teaming. Most dogs have an extended and rewarding working life; indeed, the average span has never been greater, due in part to less exposure to extreme conditions, excellent care and improved kennel conditions. It is limited only by unsuitability, injury or illness, or the loss of whichever particular ‘drive’ characterises their roles.

The dogs are valuable animals and treated as such; handlers are trained for early recognition of issues, and the expert advice and medical intervention of the DATR’s Veterinary Squadron is available around the clock. When, for whatever reason, a dog’s working life comes to an end, every effort is made to rehome it, and the DATR’s Military Animal Rehoming Centre (MARC) fulfils exactly this function including, if necessary, extensive and prolonged ‘retraining’ to prepare a dog for retirement. In the vast majority of cases, finding a suitable home is rarely a problem; indeed, one or more of its handlers may well already have applied to keep the dog once it has retired. Failing this, there is always a waiting list of good homes, which are carefully vetted by the MARC.

The work of the DATR and, indeed, the working environment in which the training takes place, is very different to that of any other organisation I have visited, but none the less crucial to the security, safety and effectiveness of the UK’s military operations, both at home and in deployed operations worldwide.

The Dogs and Horses of War

The use of animals in British military operations – in the early days almost exclusively horses and mules – dates almost as far back as the history books, the heyday being the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the African campaigns of the second part of the 19th century, and the less successful, but equally celebrated, Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War of 1853-56. By the First World War, although one million horses were sent into combat in offensive roles, the cavalry were deemed to be too vulnerable to modern enemy fire, and horses were relegated to supply and artillery support roles; the last ‘classic’ cavalry charge of the British Army was in November 1917, by soldiers of the Warwickshire and Worcestershire Yeomanries, at Huj in Palestine. The use of horses in logistic support roles continued throughout WWII; since that time their role has become purely ceremonial, as part of the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, and the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR – Life Guards and Blues and Royals).

Dogs have also been used by the military for many centuries. Latterly, the British Army employed them on guard, sentry and messenger work during the First World War and by 1918 the Messenger Dog Service included around 300 dogs trained to deliver messages from the front lines to unit headquarters. During the Second World War, dogs were recruited and trained by the British Armed Forces to serve as guards and on patrol; this war also saw the first use of mine detection dogs in the British Army. In total during WWII, the Army and Ministry of Aircraft Production employed some 3,500 dogs for guard, patrol and mine detection duties. Since then, Military Working Dogs have been used in a variety of roles, both within the UK and in every major overseas operation including Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ceremonial Mounts

The role of the Equine Squadron of the DATR is to provide trained horses and riding instructors for the two units of the British Army which carry out ceremonial duties – the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment (HCMR), formed of the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, and the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. The HCMR provides The Sovereign’s Life Guard on ceremonial occasions and protects the official entrance to the Royal Palaces at Horse Guards, off Whitehall.

The Equine Squadron staff is a mix of Army personnel from the two mounted units, assisted by grooms who are civil servants, the overall manning reflecting the fact that horses, unlike armoured vehicles, cannot be locked up and abandoned overnight and during holidays and weekends. The accommodation is extensive, and includes both indoor and outdoor training facilities, and a mechanical ‘treadmill’ for exercising the horses, or to aid recovery from injury. The stabling is in buildings that are relatively ancient-looking but have been modernised internally and are spacious and comfortable; these are surrounded by extensive fields and paddocks, in which competitions along the lines of ‘3-day Events’ can be staged with other equestrian organisations.

The DATR’s principal task is to train instructors, through the Regimental Riding Instructor’s Course. Graduates then return to their units to train their own riders and horses; the HCMR carry this out mainly at Windsor, whereas the RHA send instructors, trainees and horses to Melton Mowbray to use the DATR facilities for this purpose. The majority of ceremonial duty takes place during the summer months, and DATR plays host to horses taking winter breaks, while their riders engage in personal training or unit activity concerned with their non-ceremonial roles, in the case of HCMR as an armoured reconnaissance regiment.

There are about 500 military horses in service at any time, of which up to 360 may be at DATR. Of these some 36 will be supporting instructor courses, 30 are remounts or pending retirement, and 20 will be veterinary ‘in-patients,’ referred for care by the mounted regiments; the rest are on ‘R&R’ between ceremonial commitments.

DATR also has responsibility for remounts, i.e. the provision of replacement horses. The requirement in numbers is provided by MoD, as is the specification – size and colour – to meet the needs of the mounted regiments; the Trumpeters of the Band of the Household Cavalry, for instance, are always mounted on greys. All horses are purchased from trusted sources on the open market and will be selected by a team including OC Equine Squadron and one of the DATR vets.

The third Squadron at DATR is the Veterinary Training Squadron, which comprises some 25 RAVC vets, all of whom will have qualified in civilian training establishments before completing initial military training and progressing to the DATR. Melton Mowbray is fully equipped for the treatment of sick and injured horses, up to full surgery, and the advice of the staff is available to the mounted regiments at any time.

The Equine Squadron also includes a farrier’s school. There are only five farrier schools in the UK, and the DATR consistently produces results in the top flight; there are also only 25 farrier’s posts in the Army, and selection is by establishment vacancy, and much sought after. The farriers are co-located with the vets, and work closely with them in the care of the horses.

Plans are afoot to resurrect the ability to use packhorses in the Army, for occasions where there is no vehicular access to an area of interest, and where helicopter support may not be available. These animals would be purchased or hired at the point of need, the purpose of the course being to teach handlers how to look after them and load them properly. - Dim Jones

Published in MS&T 6/2018.