As RAF sergeant Will Barrow throws an object into the distance, his faithful springer spaniel Buster pulls at his lead, wagging his tail with excitement, ready to chase after it.
But Barrow quickly hauls the over-exuberant pooch back – because the ‘ball’ he’s just thrown is in fact a smoke grenade, aimed at Taliban snipers in the heart of Helmand Province.
This was once a regular occurrence for the pair.
“As I hurled the grenade with one hand, I stamped a foot back onto Buster’s lead, just in time to bring him back to earth. My weight on the lead managed to stall him in full flight, before he had a chance to chase down the grenade,” Barrow recalls now.
Buster has served five tours of duty, in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan – more than any other military dog – and is the official lifetime mascot of the RAF Police. His remarkable tale is told in new book Buster: The Dog Who Saved A Thousand Lives, which charts his partnership with his owner, RAF Police Flight Sgt Barrow, and how, on occasion, they saved each other’s lives while serving in the dust and unbearable desert heat of Afghanistan; Buster’s job was to sniff out explosives, leading to the arrest of suicide bombers.
“What sticks in my mind is getting shot at, although at the time, it’s an adrenalin rush. It’s when you sit back on your own at night and think about what might have happened, that it can get to you,” specialist dog handler Barrow explains.
Buster tirelessly joined his comrades on foot patrols through the poppy fields, hunting Taliban insurgents, tracking down booby trap bombs, stopping only to cool off in the Helmand River, or taking any scraps from other weary soldiers back at base who couldn’t fail to warm to him.
He and Barrow uncomfortably shared sleeping space under a mosquito pod, or ‘mozzipod’, in what was to become a battle of wills. “In true spaniel fashion, Buster circled and circled, as if chasing his tail while treading all over my body, and just before he dropped his bottom, I shifted his bulk off my groin and onto my legs.” It wasn’t a great sleeping arrangement.
The courageous canine, who is now 12 years old and retired in 2011, has a comfortable life now, however, at home with Barrow and his wife Tracy, and their two other dogs.
“The lifespan of spaniels is 12 or 13 years. If you see him now, he’s got quite bad arthritis in his legs. He has a few lumps and bumps that he shouldn’t have. There have been a few occasions when I’ve thought we’d be taking that trip to the vet, and then he’s just sprung back to life again. But it’s always a dread. It’s the worst part of being a dog handler.”
Barrow, who doesn’t have children, adds: “The dogs are my kids. A handler can never prepare themselves for the worst. I’ve been doing the job for 30 years now, and it still destroys me. Even knowing other people’s dogs who are put down is horrible.”
Like his owner and the rest of the troops he served with, Buster was subjected to gunfire, worked in the tremendous heat and dust and survived the most gruelling conditions. And he probably has been affected by his experiences, Barrow reflects.
“Now, he doesn’t like fireworks or thunder, but at the time, he just got on with it, same as all of us. It would be interesting if somebody did a proper study on post traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in animals, because I’ve met a few handlers who’ve said the same.”
But he doesn’t believe his dog ever realised the danger he was in.
“They pick up on moods, but they’re working dogs who love what they are doing and are just looking for that tennis ball. When people say to me, ‘That search dog’s clever’, I counter that with: ‘They look for bombs for a reward of a tennis ball - they can’t be that bright!’”