The RAF Regiment used to give out stickers that said “Some of the best fighters in the RAF are on the ground.”
Well the RAF Police went one further than this and proved that they don’t even have to be human. But before I go into the details of the world of the RAF Police Military Working Dog, (MWD), let me first paint a picture in your mind’s eye;
It is 0100 hours on a typical cold and wet Falkland Islands spring morning with the sort of weather that even the best of clothing still won’t help keep you warm. Snow is falling and a strong South Atlantic wind is whipping it up in to a blizzard that has reduced visibility to a few feet. A young RAF Police Dog Handler on his first tour of duty outside of the UK is on a patrol of the airfield at MPA, alone apart from his dog and feeling pretty low he awaits his relief arriving so that he can go and get a nice hot meal and a warming cup of tea. All of a sudden he sees his dog’s ears prick up as he lifts his head to sniff the air. The handler feels a tug on the lead and instantly knows that all is not how it should be, the malaise is gone, and the adrenaline is flowing. Trusting his dog to lead the way the handler follows and after what seems an eternity, but was in reality only minutes he spots two human shapes by a parked aircraft. A quick radio call with his control shows that there are no friendly personnel working on the airfield that night. So who are these intruders, criminals out stealing? An Argentinian Special Forces patrol attacking the base? The handler requests assistance and checks his equipment which consists of an L85A1 Assault Rifle loaded with 20 rounds and most importantly his companion Air Dog Spencer a highly trained German Shepherd patrol dog.
The intruders hear the sounds of the approaching Police Land Rover and decide to make a run for it completely unaware of the presence of the dog team. The handler still hasn’t seen any weapons and there is no obvious threat to life and so he knows he can’t open fire. His only option is to place his trust and possibly his life in his four legged companion and so at the top of his voice he issues a famous challenge “Air force stop or I will release my dog.”
The figures skid to a halt and put up their hands. Luckily on this occasion it was just two drunks from a nearby bar trying to find shelter on their way to their accommodation but it could have been so much worse. Several hours later the handler is woken from his bed to loud shouts and banging on doors. The date is 11th September 2001. The handler was me. And the world of the MWD had just changed!
The RAF Police has a proud history of dog handling and for a long time if you told a member of the public that you were a member of the RAF Police they invariably asked about your dog. Potential RAF Police Dog Handlers first have to complete RAF Recruit Training at RAF Halton followed by an RAF Police Basic Training Course at MOD Southwick Park where they not only learn to become RAF Police but also how to become Non Commissioned Officers, (NCO’s), in the RAF. Graduating as Acting Corporals these new NCO’s then usually go to an operational RAF station and conduct General Policing Duties until they are chosen to attend their basic dog course at the Defence Animal Centre, (DAC). This joint service training unit under the command of the Army Medical Services is where RAF Police and Royal Army Veterinary Corps, (RAVC), instructors train personnel from all branches of the UK Armed Forces to become dog handlers.
The basic dog course is broken down in to two parts with the first being where the student learns how to handle a dog, how to care for it including how to provide veterinary first aid and how to carry out basic patrol skills. The second part of the course teaches the now qualified dog handler to become a Practical Training Assistant and how to safely train a dog to bite, this part of the course is not compulsory for most troops but is for RAF Police and RAVC personnel. Upon completion of their course the newly qualified handler invariably returns to their unit where they get teamed with their dog. All dogs in the RAF hold a rank, service number and draw rations meaning that they have the same status as their human colleague. On top of this all of the dogs receive the highest levels of veterinary care and have regular veterinary inspections. Most dogs will hold the rank of Air Dog but on some units a dog will be chosen as a mascot and may hold any rank up to Warrant Officer meaning that it is possible for a dog to out rank its handler! Handlers may also return to the DAC to conduct advanced and specialist training or to conduct a re-team with a newly qualified dog.
It is at this point that the new handler realises that their role is not as easy as just being paid to walk a dog around an airfield. They are expected to put in many hours training their dog at disciplines such as Agility, Obedience, Man Work (attack training) and more advanced patrol techniques such as wind scenting and area search both of which utilise the dogs increased sense of smell to locate intruders that are hidden from sight.
They soon realise that their new role is a very solitary one carried out in all weathers, at unsociable hours of the night and that there is nothing glamorous about cleaning out a 20 dog kennel range! They also learn that just because they may have a day off or are on leave their canine charge still needs caring for and exercising and whilst this is usually done by their on duty colleagues they will be expected to give up some of their own spare time. RAF Police handlers abide by one simple motto “Don’t punish your dog – Train it!” The training never stops and handlers will carry out exercises both in formal training sessions and whilst on routine patrol duties to keep theirs and their dogs skills finely honed. This may seem like a lot of work for the dog but by using kindness at all times the dogs see these exercises and their training as a chance to play with their human best friend. This helps create a bond between man and dog which allows them both to place their lives firmly in the hands (or paws) of the other.
Most dogs used by the RAF police come from public donations or dog rescue organisations, and unlike their civilian police counterparts the RAF police do not have a puppy breeding programme. Although when the availability of suitable dogs has fallen short of requirements the purchasing of dogs from UK and Overseas breeders has occurred. Most of these dogs have “personality issues” which have meant that their owners can’t cope with them anymore and several have been rescued from abusive owners. In most circumstances they would face destruction but the RAF Police offers them a chance of a second life.
The RAF Police utilises two main types of dog:
1. Patrol Dogs. Most Patrol Dogs in use by the RAF Police are German Shepherd Dogs and Belgian Malinios. These are general purpose dogs that are agile, intelligent, have great stamina and are extremely strong and loyal with a natural guarding instinct making them ideal for the protection of installations and Airbases. These dogs can easily run at speeds of 30 MPH or higher and have 42 sharp teeth producing a bite of over 230 pounds-force meaning that being bitten by one would seriously ruin your day. In order to match the guarding capability of just 1dog team a commander would have to allocate 50 human sentries to guard the same area making the dog a very valuable asset! Patrol dogs are also trained in basic crowd control and riot duties.
2. Search Dogs. The majority of search dogs come from Gun Dog breeds such as Springer Spaniels and Labrador Retrievers. Due to their exceptional sense of smell which is from1, 000 to 10,000,000 times stronger than a human depending on breed, dogs can be trained to search for anything from Drugs, bodies and Arms and Explosives, including mines and hidden Improvised Explosive Devices. They can be used for searching personnel, accommodation, vehicles, aircraft, compounds, you name it if a dog can fit its nose in something it can search it. Search Dogs have saved countless lives in recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now seen as key targets for Insurgents.
The RAF Police also has several highly specialist dogs whose capabilities I won’t go in to too much detail about. One of these specialist dogs is the Service Police Dog, (SPD), which as the name suggests is similar to the Civilian police Dog that we see on the streets of our towns and cities. The SPD can perform all of the duties of the patrol dog but they also have increased training in areas such as crowd control and tracking using ground scents instead of windborne scents. In 2007 the RAF Police successfully trailed combining a SPD team with a Search and Rescue, (SAR), Sea King in the Falkland Islands. When using a windborne scent a dog can cover a very large area in a very short space of time allowing a search team to move quickly over ground that would take hundreds of searchers days to clear using traditional search methods. This trial proved that the SPD would be a valuable asset for use in SAR operations both during peacetime and in locating downed aircrew during combat operations. RAF Police dogs have also been used in support of the Royal Falkland Islands Police to search for people and narcotics.
The RAF Police currently has dog teams deployed around the globe in places as diverse as the UK, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Diego Garcia and the Falkland Islands. In Afghanistan the RAF Police may deploy on formed joint Military Working Dog Units alongside their RAVC colleagues, or on attachment to various units ranging from Infantry units to the US Marine Corps and US Air Force. The dogs are used in various roles from protecting main operating bases to being outside of the wire patrolling in insurgent contested territory. These duties are extremely hazardous as has been shown by the fact that since March 2007, nine MWD’s have been killed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with two RAVC handlers also being killed. In a recent interview Colonel Neil Smith, the Director Army Veterinary and Remount Services, said: “The contribution that Military Working Dogs make to operations cannot be underestimated. They play a vital role in helping to seek out IEDs and other threats that our personnel may face and we are very proud of what they achieve.”
28 Dogs including several RAF/RAF Police dogs have won the ultimate recognition by being awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal otherwise known as the Animal Victoria Cross for bravery in the service of the UK Armed Forces. This article is dedicated to their memory and to the courage of those Dogs and Handlers that have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect others.