SUIPPES, France (AP) – From tracking down suspects in the 2015 Paris terror attacks to fighting extremists in Africa’s Sahel region, dogs have helped French soldiers, police officers and rescue teams save lives for more than a century.
In recognition of the four-legged partners, France this week inaugurated a memorial in tribute to all “civil and military hero dogs.” It features a sculpture by French-Columbian artist Milthon depicting a World War I soldier and his dog crouching.
The memorial is located in front of the town hall in Suippes, part of an area in northeastern France where major battles were fought during the First World War. The placement recognizes the important role dogs played in the American and European armies of the time.
Suippes is also home to the largest military kennel in Europe, where members of the French Army’s 132nd Infantry Regiment train dogs for military service. The regiment currently consists of 650 soldiers and 550 dogs.
The monument in honor of hero dogs was an initiative of the French kennel club, the Centrale Canine. Animals from the army regiment attended Thursday’s inauguration ceremony and wore their military medals.
“It’s very important (recognition) because dogs, like humans, are on missions, but we don’t ask them for their opinion. So it’s fair to me to give them a medal back,” said Johann, an adjutant in a combat unit.
He and other human members of the unit could only be identified by their first names for security reasons related to their military status.
The regiment at Suippes prepares dogs for combat zones where they would be tasked with tracking down and pursuing a potential enemy. Some are also trained to detect explosives and drugs. Each dog is paired with a soldier.
Johann, a member of the regiment for 12 years, is now paired with a Dutch Shepherd named Nasky. He hasn’t lost a dog in action, but has colleagues who have.
“It is important from a psychological point of view and very difficult for the handler. But in those moments, we take it upon ourselves (to move on) and if we don’t have our dog anymore, we’re still infantry soldiers and we need to be able to continue our missions,” he said.
The regiment’s recruits are involved in French operations abroad, including in the Sahel region of Africa, West Africa and the Middle East. They are also sent on domestic missions and to work in French overseas territories, such as fighting the gold trade in French Guiana.
The dogs selected for training are sometimes recruited when they are puppies, but most are 18 months old. Many come from France, others from the Netherlands, Germany and countries in Eastern Europe.
They undergo a series of tests to see if they are enthusiastic about biting, willing to play and not easily startled in a stressful environment. The main quality required is courage, the soldiers of the regiment said.
“We use a lot of their sense of smell, their sight, their physical abilities. That’s why we have a lot of Belgian, German Shepherds, dogs that can run, that can withstand heat and cold,” explains Audrey, member of the dog department. “They are very good working dogs.”
When they can no longer complete their mission, the dogs retire. Audrey plans to keep her partner, Moocki, at her home when the time comes. She explained that “the handlers are the ones best able to choose families” for retired dogs.
“As handlers, we try to do this as best we can…depending on the dog, its character. Some dogs can also have post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
France created its first department to train dogs for active duty during World War I. They searched for wounded soldiers, alerted sentries and carried messages, food and ammunition to the front lines of the 1914-1918 war.
Thursday’s ceremony in France paid particular tribute to Diesel, a police dog killed in a raid targeting the mastermind of the Paris attacks in 2015 and Leuk, a French army attack dog killed by an extremist in Mali in 2019.
Other countries have recognized the war contributions of dogs. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy awarded a medal to a Jack Russell terrier named Patron who sniffed mines after Russia invaded Ukraine. Patron was later visited by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who praised him as ‘world famous’.
In the United States, in 2013, the first National Monument to Military Working Dog Teams was unveiled at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, home to the world’s largest military dog training center.
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