Life-saving Labrador set to receive animal 'VC'

To the untrained eye, black Labrador Treo looks like any other happy, healthy dog.

But the nine-year-old has seen more of a warzone than most people will in a lifetime and is now the proud recipient of the animal equivalent of a Victoria Cross for his life-saving skills sniffing out roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

The Dickin Medal, the highest accolade a military animal can expect, will be presented to Treo and his handler Sergeant Dave Heyhoe in a special ceremony organised by the PDSA at the Imperial War Museum today.

Treo, who saw frontline action patrolling with soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008, is now retired, enjoying life at home.

He and Sgt Heyhoe have returned to their former base 104 Military Working Dogs Support Unit, in North Luffenham, Rutland.

Sgt Heyhoe said: "Treo and I have been working together for the last five years.

"We started our time together in Northern Ireland, then moved to North Luffenham, where we then went out to Afghanistan in 2008."

While there, Treo saved lives as he patrolled with Sgt Heyhoe in Sangin, Helmand Province.

At that time the army had 25 dogs deployed in Afghanistan supporting troops in various roles, including as protection dogs and as detection dogs, working both in vehicle searches and as arms and explosives search dogs - like Treo.

"Treo's work involves searching for arms and explosives out on the ground to the forefront of the troops," Sgt Heyhoe said.

"What we're trying to do is make sure there are no death-dealing agents out there to make sure there is no harm to the troops behind us.

"It's very important. We are part and parcel of the search element. We're not the ultimate answer but we are an aid to search.

"Another aid would be the metal detector - but Treo is a four-legged variety."

On August 15 2008, while working as a forward detection dog in Sangin, Treo found a "daisy chain" improvised explosive device (IED) - made of two or more explosives wired together - that had been carefully modified and concealed by the Taliban at the side of a path.

A month later, his actions saved another platoon from guaranteed casualties, again by finding a daisy chain IED.

Treo started his career at the Defence Animal Centre, based in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, when he was a year old.

He did 12 weeks training before he went to Northern Ireland, where he worked for three years with his first handler before Sgt Heyhoe took over.

But their relationship is now far more than a working partnership, Sgt Heyhoe said.

"Basically, me and the dog have got to get a rapport. We've got to understand each other and without that we can't be effective on the ground.

"He must know when I want him to go somewhere to search, that's where he goes.

"Everyone will say that he is just a military working dog - yes, he is, but he is also a very good friend of mine. We look after each other."

Treo is the 63rd animal to receive the Dickin Medal - introduced by PDSA founder Maria Dickin in 1943 to honour the work of animals in war - and the 27th dog to receive the honour.

Since its introduction it has also been presented to 32 Second World War messenger pigeons, three horses and one cat.

Sgt Heyhoe said the praise was symbolic for all dogs and their handlers working in warzones.

"I'm very proud indeed, not only for myself and Treo, but it's for every dog and handler that's working out in Afghanistan or Iraq," he said.

"That's what the medal means to us - taking it for the rest of the guys and their dogs."

Major Chris Ham, officer commanding the Canine Division at the Defence Animal Centre, said dogs were playing an increasingly important role, particularly in Afghanistan.

He said: "It's being recognised more and more in this day and age that the key capability the armed explosives dog does have lies particularly in finding IEDs.

"They give a unique contribution to the troops on the ground searching for these devices on a daily basis.

"This medal is a unique honour for all of our dog handlers, particularly all the military working dogs and their handlers that are serving in Afghanistan."

But he said they were still keen to recruit more dogs like Treo - especially gun dog breeds including springer spaniels, Labradors, golden retrievers, retrievers and their crosses, as well as larger breeds such as German shepherds.

"It's very difficult at the moment to recruit dogs and we are constantly campaigning," he said.

"We need to recruit military working dogs all the time so we can carry on the good work they are doing."

Speaking ahead of today's ceremony, PDSA director general Jan McLoughlin said: "We look forward to honouring Treo with the PDSA Dickin Medal.

"The medal is recognised throughout the world as the animals' Victoria Cross and is the highest award any animal can receive for bravery in the line of duty.

"Treo is, without doubt, a worthy recipient."