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Dogs Combat Bomb Threats in Afghanistan

A major threat to NATO forces in Afghanistan comes from IEDs or improvised explosive devices. One way British forces are combating the threat is with dogs trained to detect explosives. It's a program cloaked in secrecy with officials refusing to give details on how the dogs are trained. Recently one top dog was awarded a top military prize for his valor.

Treo looks like any black Labrador, but he's special.

He's getting the highest military award in Britain for an animal, the Dickin medal. It's the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honor.

Jan McLaughlin is director of the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, which gives the prize.

"Treo's particular training involves looking for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and particularly these that are what they call the daisy chain explosives which when one is detonated a whole series is detonated, really designed to cause maximum injury to any soldiers walking by, and Treo detected these and enabled them to be disarmed so he saved those lives," she explained.

Treo worked in Afghanistan with Sergeant Dave Heyhoe, his handler. Sergeant Heyhoe says they were part of larger team.

"There's plenty of dogs out there on the front line searching for these improvised explosive devices and without them, I think there'd be a lot more casualties out there," Heyhoe said.

For NATO forces in Afghanistan, IEDs are the number one threat, responsible for most combat deaths and for punishing casualties.

Troops must find and defuse the devices. They also have to figure out who is laying the explosives and how they're being financed.

As IEDs become complex, detecting them becomes complex too.

Soldiers call it a cat and mouse game. As troops come up with better methods of protection or detection, the insurgents change their tactics.

Olivier Grouille from London's Royal United Services Institute says IEDs are a drain on military resources.

"It costs money, it costs time, it costs lives," Grouille said. "It changes the way forces have to move around on the ground, and it changes attitudes to risk."

Major Graham Shannon spent six months in Afghanistan where he says dogs were good for morale as well as safety.

"There are lots of different technologies that we've developed that accompany us on patrol that support our ability to detect the devices but the technology cannot replace the capability that the dog brings," Shannon said.

Treo joins a long line of distinguished animal recipients, including a World War II homing pigeon that delivered the news of the D-Day landings and a horse that, during the German blitz of London, saved its owner.

The most recent threat - IEDs - have made Treo a hero and a celebrity, he now plans to retire.