Ruth Meech reports on how the story of a bomb-disposal partnership became a best-selling book, with the help of Dorset author Damian Lewis
Stories about the close bonds forged between men and dogs are legion, but some are more soul-stirring than others.
It’s All About Treo (Quercus, £18.99), an Amazon best-seller, is the story of Sgt Dave Heyhoe and Treo, a black spaniel-Labrador cross with attitude. Together, they became one of the most effective explosives detection teams in the Afghan province of Sangin.
In their six months on the front line their bomb discovery rate was so prolific the Taliban deliberately set out to target them and on their return home, Treo was presented with the prestigious Dickin Medal, an award given to animals that have saved countless human lives while on active service.
Treo won his gong in the summer of 2008, when he and his handler were on patrol with The Royal Irish Regiment. In August they located a ‘daisy chain’ IED, an improvised explosive device designed to trigger a series of bombs, on a road where soldiers were about to pass, thus saving countless lives. Less than a month later they unearthed another hidden bomb.
Their success at finding bombs made them talismanic to the soldiers they were there to protect, but the sights they witnessed and the friends they lost left Dave suicidal and suffering from post-traumatic shock.
To save himself and his sanity, he wanted to get his experience down on paper and teamed up with Damien Lewis, a best-selling military author who lives in Dorchester.
He said: “There are a lot of books about soldiers in Afghanistan but not one of them mentions that they can’t fight the Taliban unless there’s a dog handler in front of them.
“I wanted to tell the story of how it was and that we were at the forefront of those patrols, which couldn’t go out without us.
“If I have opened the eyes of one person by writing this book, then I have achieved my aim.”
It’s All About Treo came at a very dark time for Dave, who was mentally shredded by what he had seen in Sangin, drinking heavily and suicidal.
“The third and last time I tried to kill myself was in front of Treo,” said Dave. “He looked at me and it was like he was saying ‘if you go, who will look after me?’ I stopped and thought to myself ‘Dave, you’ve really got to get a grip on yourself’.”
He continued: “I stopped drinking and sought help. Rachel [now Dave’s wife] helped me so much and suggested it would be a good idea to write down what I’d been through. If it wasn’t for Damien and Rachel and their love, I would be somewhere very different now.”
Dave was introduced to Treo when he was working in Northern Ireland as a protection dog handler and trainer. He was initially warned off the dog because he was a bit of a handful and a biter, but the deterrent failed.
“They thought it would put me off but I just thought ‘ah ha’. I saw Treo and I know it sounds soppy, but it was love at first sight.
“We share some similar characteristics,” said Dave who, like his dog, was a bit of a ‘rogue’ in his youth.
Damien was intrigued by Dave and Treo as a military author and a dog-lover. He has written a dozen factual novels and thrillers and his latest book Zero Six Bravo (Quercus, £18.99), about the second Iraq war, is the first time in a decade that the MOD have officially given clearance for a book about a special forces military operation.
Damien said: “I am used to having big tough soldiers breaking down in front of me when telling their stories because they go through the most terrible traumas, but Dave had one of the worst experiences imaginable, being at the head of patrols when they were out, not knowing what would happen.
“It’s not surprising he was traumatised.”
Today, Dave lives with Rachel in Cheshire with their little daughter Ellie-Ann Grace and Rachel’s two sons Thomas and Oliver. Treo completes the family but remains very much ‘Dave’s dog’.
“I can’t even begin to tell you of the affection I have for that dog,” said Dave.
“He can tell how I am through my eyes and body movement. He knows what I’m feeling on a day-to-day basis.”
Damien was aware from the outset how perfect Dave and Treo are for each other.
He said: “Treo is a big black ball of hair with attitude. He is not a loveable soppy dog. He came to Dave with a reputation of being a tough dog to handle and he needed a handler like Dave who would not push him down but would have a mutual respect. They really were made for each other.”