IN a few months, an Irish wolfhound named Domhnall handled by a soldier from Belfast will be leading the way for 1st Battalion the Irish Guards.
Based at Mons Barracks in Aldershot, Hampshire, the five-month-old is already training for the moment he dons a special silver collar and scarlet tunic to join the guardsmen in their ceremonial role at occasions including the Queen’s Birthday Parade.
Domhnall came to the regiment from Ireland untrained and he and his handler, Drummer David Steed, are on a steep learning curve to make sure they look the part when they first fulfil the role for the regiment’s grand St Patrick’s Day parade next year.
Drummer Steed, 24, from Belfast, volunteered for the task of handler.
“It’s just the honour and the privilege of being the first man that everybody sees on parade, we’re basically the face of the battalion.”
In two months, “blank canvas” Domhnall has been house trained and obedience trained, Drummer Steed said, with his ceremonial training in London due to start after Christmas.
“That will involve being with the regimental band, taking him out on Queen’s guard mounts to get him used to the noises and the sights and sounds of London, as well as taking him to Knightsbridge for his horse-friendly training.
“Because ceremonial duties are with the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, it’s making sure the horses aren’t startled by him and vice versa.”
He admitted training the “hyper” puppy - whose favourite occupation is chasing cyclists - is hard work for both of them.
“While I haven’t been a dog handler, I’ve been round dogs most of my life so I know obedience training, what’s expected.
“But this kind of training the two of us are undergoing is something slightly different - it’s different from marching down the road carrying a rifle to suddenly having a four-legged friend by your side that you’ve got to control as well.”
The pair spend 365 days a year together, and when Drummer Steed returns to Northern Ireland on leave Domhnall will join him.
While his kennel at the barracks is being refurbished, Domhnall is sleeping in the room next to his handler.
“The job of being a mascot handler isn’t just a nine to five job,” said Drummer Steed.
“It’s 365 days a year of feeding him, grooming him, exercising him.”
Despite looking after Domhnall and training him, another tradition means Drummer Steed could end up being outranked by his four-legged friend.
Capt Irwin-Clark said: “When the regimental mascot arrives he has an Army number, and one little tradition we like to maintain is that usually before he retires he is given the honorary rank of lance corporal, which can mean on some occasions he ends up outranking his handler.
“Though we sadly didn’t have the opportunity to promote the last regimental mascot, we’re hoping that Domhnall will perform well enough that he warrants the rank of lance corporal before he leaves us.”