I have nothing but the highest respect for working and service animals, especially dogs. How anyone can watch an animal, be that a guide dog for a disabled individual or a search dog for the police, and not be amazed by their intelligence and abilities is simply unthinkable. Of course, praise must also go to their handles; the people who spend hours and hours patiently training these animals, keeping them stimulated and allowing them to live happy and healthy lives. Naturally, the military make extensive use of the abilities and intelligence of animals, and these true life accounts have always been a favourite non-fiction read of mine.
It’s All About Treo: Life and War with the World’s Bravest Dog is one such book. Written by David Heyhoe, the book documents the lives of both himself and his working dog, Treo. Treo is an Arms Explosive dog, his purpose being to sniff out and detect thing such as explosives, IED’s, weaponry etc. Together, the pair are assigned to one of the most dangerous places to be during the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban – Sangin, in the Helmand Province. We can only imagine the terrors and the intensity of the high pressurised situations such army members are forced to face, but David’s account does an excellent job of conveying some of the crucial role. Quite simply, without David and Treo working in perfect harmony to the best of their abilities, the lives of both soldiers and the Afghan civilians would have been in extreme peril from the Taliban.
As you would expect from something which covers the fight against the Taliban, this book is extremely riveting, with a continuous action packed recounting of the work the men must face daily. Right from the start, the book hits the ground running. David and Treo arrive in Camp Bastion (an extremely important Afghan Ministry of Defence airbase), where they are almost immediately flown to Sangin, leaving zero time for either man or dog to acclimatise to the heat of the country or the conditions of war. As David explains, Sangin is more commonly known as ‘IED Central’, ‘arguably the most dangerous place in the world’s most dangerous war zone right now’ (p. 3). Onto this team’s head falls the responsibilities of keeping their men alive, a pressure which I cannot even begin to imagine how you would handle.
What I think really elevates this book to a greater level is the fact that before David became involved with the handling and training of working dogs within the army, he had actually served as an infantry soldier. In fact, in order to become qualified to work with the dogs, he actually had to willing take a demotion, as the position was lower than he had previously achieved, and he could not retain the position. This means that David has firsthand knowledge of military life from a war zone, and this really allows for him to make the situation so easily understandable for readers, further enriching the story. Additionally, the fact he willingly demoted himself only goes to show the passion these handles have for their animals and the jobs they are doing.
The writers voice is very natural, and almost instantly I felt that a comradeship of sorts had been established between myself and our narrator. One of my main dislikes with books which have an animal at the heart of the story is that quite often the voices or the style can become quite adolescent, almost as if the fact it is centred upon an animal means it must be quite juvenile in tone. Thankfully, this never occurred in this book, meaning that David’s honest tone reflects the harsh realities of a military life. He writes with such familiarity that I was immediately drawn to the team, wanting them to survive. We do not need to have military knowledge, with David’s very organic writing filling in any blanks as we go.
Whilst this book is not specifically a book focusing upon life in Afghanistan, it does provide an excellent look into the culture. It was fascinating to see through someone who has experienced it firsthand how the local people can be extremely resentful to the army, and in many ways who can blame them? Whilst an army presence has been justified through the fight against the Taliban, trying to save lives, in many cases their presence can only heighten terrorist retaliation. It really is a problematic situation which I would like to explore more fully. Just as interesting was the ways in which the local people are often targeted by the Taliban, whether with aggression or manipulation to use them for their own purposes, including suicide bombers. Through his own experience, David remarks that one such man was:
‘probably just some simply farmer, whom the Taliban had drugged up and fed full of lies. There’s likely a young family going to grow up without a father now, and all because the Taliban brainwashed him into blowing himself to pieces’ (p. 141).
Another interesting point to add was the ways in which the local people can have such mixed views towards Treo, or dogs in general. Many cultures, I was made to remind, actually view these fantastically intelligent animals as dirty and beneath them. The attitudes of the Afghanistan Army often portray this attitude, with many being scared of such animals.
As I’ve highlighted, this book helped to develop my knowledge as much as it was enjoyable. Through this book, David further clarifies the different jobs which dogs can hold within the army, and the vastly different things this can involve. As well as Treo’s line of work as an Arms Explosive’s Dog, we also learn a bit about roles such as that of an Infantry Patrol Dog. David explains how very different these lines of work are, yet how they all share the vital role of helping to provide safety and security to their handles and teams. I already had the highest of respect for working animals, but this book really does solidify the utter understanding that resides between handler and dog, and the sheer harmony they must work in to be able to do their job so successfully. You really can view the pair as extensions of each other.
I adored this book. As a crazy-dog-person, it was everything I loved, and it was all executed to perfection. This book is a testimony to the heights that non-fiction can reach, and the way in which real life stories can be told so effectively. Without the help, love and sacrifice of animals, this world would be nothing, and I think it is only fair that we as a society recognize the brilliance of both animals and their handlers; the utter proof of man’s best friend.