When military dogs are no longer needed, they face an uncertain future — now a brave group of women have stepped in to help. Joanne Bednall reports…
When figures released by the Ministry of Defence last year revealed that the Army was euthanising former ‘dogs of war’ — many of whom had risked their lives sniffing out explosives or protecting members of Britain’s Armed Forces in conflict — there was outrage.
MPs, former serving officers, and the public condemned the decision to put down nearly 40 military working dogs, between March and December 2017, because they had outlived their usefulness. Reasons given for this included age, welfare concerns, a range of medical conditions, and behavioural or temperamental issues.
In response to calls for more to be done to rehome these brave canines, ex-Army dog handlers Samantha James (pictured above), Jaime Garner, and Amber Sokyrka, along with reserve medic Angie McDonnell, have founded Hero Paws.
“Our long-term plan is to get every ex-service dog into a home,” explains 26-year-old Sam, who left the military nearly three years ago to focus more on animal welfare.
“This is in an ideal world, and while we accept that some dogs are riskier than others, we still want to offer them sanctuary, so they can enjoy a well-deserved, happy retirement.”
The quartet’s ultimate aim, after achieving charitable status, is to raise £1m to establish a Midlands-based, 50-kennel facility where ex-service dogs are given plenty of time to prepare for civilian life by undergoing desensitisation training and rehabilitation.
“The Army doesn’t have the time, facilities, or budget to rehabilitate, advertise, and rehome every dog, so we hope that we will be able to fill this gap,” says Sam, who currently works as a dog walker and pet sitter near her home in Colchester, Essex.
Civilians can rehome military dogs too
Sam is keen to dispel the myth that only Army handlers can rehome military dogs. “A lot of the dogs can be rehomed to civilians,” she continues, adding that a range of breeds — Labradors, Belgian Shepherd Malinois, spaniels, and German Shepherds — are used in a variety of roles in the forces.
Already this year, Hero Paws has been shortlisted for a prestigious national award. The organisation was a finalist in the PDSA-supported Charity Team of the Year category at Ceva Animal Health’s eighth annual Animal Welfare Awards, held in Birmingham in April.
In addition, the London Ambulance Service donated half the proceeds of its 2017 poppy appeal to the cause, while coffers have been boosted further by supporters organising fund-raising events and activities, such as a pop-up tea room in an Essex village. Sam is also hoping to collect sponsorship from running a marathon, as well as exploring the option of applying for government grants in the future.
Sam’s inspiration for the project was Stikky, her canine comrade and constant companion while on tours of duty in Germany, Jordan, and Afghanistan. But, as she admitted, it certainly wasn’t love at first sight that day in
November 2011 when she met the Belgian Shepherd Malinois. “I didn’t really like Stikky initially,” confesses Sam, who was paired with the canine tearaway on a specialist search dog training course.
“He was young, excitable, and stupid. But, by the end of the course at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray, I’d fallen in love with him and his cheeky personality.”
In fact, it wasn’t until Sam was posted back to Germany and teamed with ‘a nightmare, skitty dog, who was all over the place’ that she came to really appreciate Stikky and his talents, so asked to have him back.
In June 2012, the pair were reunited before being deployed to Afghanistan for six months, attached to the Royal Engineers.
Building a bond
“I think Stikky and I clicked because I learned to appreciate who he was, when many other officers didn’t like him,” recalls Sam, who explained that her dog’s role in the hot desert-like conditions was to search in straight 15- or 30-metre lines and detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
While Sam says that they tolerated the conditions and heat well, she found it a rather lonely existence, as the troops were being pulled out of the country at the time, and there wasn’t a lot for them to do.
“When you spend 24/7 with your dog, living and training together, you become very close,” says Sam. “In those six months, I really got to know Stikky and what made him tick. Our bond really deepened.”
On their return to Germany, Stikky’s role changed and he started re-training towards becoming a dual-purpose dog, which involved off-lead searching and protection work. But he proved unreliable off-lead, and failed the course. Meanwhile, Sam had been matched to a protection dog, Belgian Shepherd cross-breed, Bony.
Home at last
But when she heard that Stikky hadn’t passed his training or his subsequent rehoming assessment, and faced being put to sleep, she was in pieces. “I was so upset,” she says. “Stikky was deemed to be a risk to the general public, but I knew him better than anyone — he wasn’t a dangerous dog.”
So Sam approached her sergeant major, asking for permission to rehome her former canine partner. The request was passed further up the chain of command, resulting in Stikky and a group of other dogs being sent back to Melton Mowbray for a six-month reassessment.
After jumping through lots of hoops, including writing several letters, sending photographs proving that her garden was secure, undertaking never to let Stikky off-lead, and waiting a frustrating six months for a decision, Sam was over the moon when she finally heard that she could rehome him.
“When they called to say that I could have him, it was such a relief,” continues Sam. She drove to Melton Mowbray in May 2015 to collect Stikky, before returning to Germany, where she was based with search spaniels Milo and Jasper, before deciding to quit the Army six months later.
Since then, Stikky has surprised Sam with the ease in which he has slotted into civilian life. His transition from military dog to pet has been smooth, although Sam refuses to take any of the credit herself.
“He has adjusted to his new life like a duck to water — he’s done it all by himself. I’ve taken him to village fetes, dog shows, and for long forest walks, and he hasn’t put a paw wrong — I think he was always cut out to be a pet!”
For now, after her initial disappointment at not landing roles with the RSPCA, Sam is concentrating on promoting Hero Paws and highlighting the importance of life after service for former military dogs. It’s hoped that, in the future, this can be extended to include ex-police dogs, as well.
For more information or to donate, visit www.facebook.com/heropawsuk or email [email protected]