By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense chief canine correspondent
Last week I came across a British Ministry of Defence article about the record-holding bomb sniffing canine in Afghanistan, Theo, a springer spaniel just 22 months old. He and his handler, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, were so good at their job -- detecting 14 IEDS and weapons caches in only five months -- that the British Army extended their tour in Helmand Province.
Theo and Tasker were in headlines again yesterday, hundreds of times over in fact, but there was no such happy news this time. During a routine patrol on Tuesday their unit was ambushed by Taliban sniper fire and Tasker was mortally wounded. Though Theo survived the attack unscathed, he died mere hours later. The details on the cause of Theo's death are fuzzy: A few reports are saying the dog succumbed to stress from the attack, others say it was a seizure, and some are saying the explanation is far more plain -- a broken heart.
It's not hard to believe that the traumatic loss of such a beloved handler may have been too much for young Theo to bear. All the descriptions about Theo and Tasker seem familiar -- they were inseparable, affectionate -- clearly a deeply devoted pair. Tasker had spoken fondly of canine partner, saying that Theo had "a great character and never tires. He can't wait to get out and do his job and will stop at nothing."
Tasker, 26, was originally from Kirkcaldy, Scotland, and loved being a dog handler. Lieutenant Colonel David Thorpe LANCS, Commanding Officer of 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, said: "He was a strong, reliable soldier and an expert dog man. ... one of the highly qualified dog trainers in Afghanistan. The work he did in his 5 months in Afghanistan saved countless lives, of that I have no doubt." Major Alexander Turner, Officer Commanding 2 Company, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, added: "A natural with animals, he had an affection for his dog that truly was a window to his soul.'"
Also, sadly familiar is the suspicion of soldiers close to Tasker who believe that the snipers hit Tasker in an attempt to take out Theo. Bomb-sniffing dogs are often the most valuable target of attacks like these. According to the Ministry of Defense five British military dogs had been killed during a tour of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Theo became the sixth.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.