Canine heroes, we often see them don’t we. Good looking dogs lurking in newspapers with attractive and smiling handlers, dragging people out of rubble and from wild hillsides and finding stashes of weapons and explosives. But what about the general military dog population?
The ones who give their all, right up until the end, in the tedious jobs? The working dog equivalent of a supermarket shelf stacker or the health care staff who clean up the elderly and the people who drive through the night to bring you your morning newspaper. Dogs do these jobs too, quietly exhausted and desperate for a rest. They plod on because they have no choice.
Before I start some of you might find this a bit uncomfortable. I do when I think of it. But this is to let you know about Turner – and is not a military bashing exercise at all, just my experience. But in order to tell you about Turner I need to tell you how we met.
Turner was my Dog Course dog.
My dog course was a long – long time ago and I need readers, you, to know that things may have changed now. In fact they probably, hopefully have. So what is a dog course? Well its proper name is something along the lines of patrol dog handling course or similar and back then the real heroes were the dogs.
People were assigned to the course and every week a new group came to the centre at Melton Mowbray to learn how to handle a dog that will be their security assistance and criminal apprehension.
Each ‘practice dog’ was an old and retired working German shepherd. Some were very old and most very retired. The instructor was a very sweet guy called Steve and the dog assigned in my direction did not even look like a German shepherd. Turner looked like a little old mongrel, a gentle soul who needed to be by a fire. He deserved to be by a fire.
The dogs, back then, were disallowed to become civilians when their time was up. I don’t know if this is till the case. Perhaps a reader can tell me? Their time, their working life, consisted of patrolling perimeters. After that they were deemed too much of a risk to be retired out, no matter how sweet their nature, so they were either killed or used as a dog course tool.
When you look back into a situation which even then seemed harsh and unfair on the dogs – with a wiser and more learned viewpoint – then the harshness seems shocking. It haunts you when you go into that area of your mind and think about it. You file it away until it’s time to air it out again. Then you cry whilst it airs, cruelly and honestly, into the space around your head.
There was one vet, a lady who arrived via the Territorial Army who managed to get two out. These two dogs were so old that they could barely walk, let alone pose a threat. They were lucky, they had their fire for a short time and she loved them. It used to be funny to see the older vet and her ancient dog’s but not now. Not when I look back in. Now it’s just sad. Why didn’t we all fight for them like she fought?
So the entire fortnight was taken up by looking after the dogs. Shaking the straw up in their kennels and walking them on their leads around the exercise area. In a big loop, the same way, there was a trail of mud in the grass where the dogs were walked. A sad little track of repeat.
Checking was big then. Each of the dogs wore a thick leather collar and we were taught to check. A short sharp, not so gentle tug on the lead which snapped the dog’s head back. The idea was to teach them to stop pulling and these poor old dogs were the practice tool for this – most didn’t have the energy to pull but were still checked. It is important to practice you see….
We were taught to say ‘Heel’ loudly and ‘check’ if the dog doesn’t respond. Turner never pulled. Turner was literally an angel, a perfect dog. Back then, caught up in my youth and lack of self-belief everything that happened was normal. Thinking now how sad his life must have been is harsh. Very harsh.
We were taught to release our dogs on a ‘baiter’ dressed as a criminal and then if they didn’t leave when asked we learned to choke them off. We were taught that extra kindness has no place in a military dog’s life. That no dog should be trained with reward other than a pat and the words ‘good boy’ A bit of sausage was a cardinal sin back then.
We went on a road walk, a few miles through tunnels and water. Up hills and even over jumps with these dogs. So many dogs collapsed on the weekly road walk that it was a long term running joke.
I did what I do with dogs. I fell in love with him and told him so. His cloudy eyes appreciated it. His Grey nose nuzzled me with thanks and love. His stiff limbs responded to my touch with their own push. He was a nice boy, a wonderful dog, a sad and sickening story of faithfulness.
Turner did his job. He took me through the two weeks and qualified me as a dog handler. Enabling me to go on to become a trainer and do the glamorous jobs – I might tell you about that someday. He did the same for so many more, then one day he just collapsed and died. It was too much for him and he worked to his death. Ever loving and ever trailing around that exercise area with the word ‘heel’ ringing in his ears.
So next time you see a dog that has made a difference. Don’t forget the others who made it possible. Don’t forget Turner and all those like him.
And raise a toast to the unsung heroes!
© Sally Gutteridge
A message received since writing this. I figure it belongs here too.
Thank you Christopher Jones - ‘Definitely changed, lots of dogs are routinely re-homed at the end of their service not although sadly some are too traumatised by their service or aggressive to ever be released into the public. Checking is still taught but is not used routinely and ALL training is reward based. They even have heated kennels now – no more straw’