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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

Soldiers at rest: A peek into the cushy lives of retired army dogs

At India’s only retirement home for service doggies, the canine vets get the care and respect they deserve, plus hugs and belly rubs at every opportunity

more-lifestyle Updated: Nov 04, 2018 14:00 IST
Jayati Bhola
Jayati Bhola
Hindustan Times
Thirty dogs are living out their retirement at the special RVC centre in Meerut, most of them German Shepherds and Labradors.
Thirty dogs are living out their retirement at the special RVC centre in Meerut, most of them German Shepherds and Labradors. (Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo)
         

Bacchar is a slow eater, but loves her food, especially her second helpings of eggs and kheema, for extra protein. This 14-year-old Labrador and retired army dog was born at the Remount and Veterinary Corps (RVC) centre in Meerut, which breeds and trains all army dogs, was last posted in Jhorhat in Assam as an explosives detector, and returned here after retirement in 2016.

Also here is Danika, a vivacious three-year-old German Shepherd forced into early retirement after injuring a leg during a drill. And Bear, 11, a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, who served as a rescue dog in Siachen. They are among 30 dogs at the RVC’s Canine Rehabilitation Centre, India’s only home for retired Army dogs.

It was set up by the RVC in September 2015. Before that the practice had been to put down retired dogs unless they had won a gallantry award.

“They are the brave, silent soldiers of our nation. Looking after them in their old age I feel proud to do my job,” says dafadar Aziz Khan, 43, who is in charge of the centre. “I know them all by name and understand their nature well… just the way you know your family members.”

Over the past three years, 150 dogs have passed through this facility; of these 40 lived out their days before eventually going to that great big farm in the sky; another 80 were adopted by civilians and army personnel.

SLEEP, EAT, REPEAT

The day is a series of walks, meals and massages. ‘They’ve done their duty; let them sleep in and enjoy now,’ says subedar Rajesh Chand (not in photograph), a trainer and handler at RVC.
The day is a series of walks, meals and massages. ‘They’ve done their duty; let them sleep in and enjoy now,’ says subedar Rajesh Chand (not in photograph), a trainer and handler at RVC. ( Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo )

For the young pups training here, the day starts at 5.30 am, with drills, PE and obedience training. For the retired dogs, the day starts at 6 am, with a leisurely walk followed by an hour or so of lounging in a shed, with coolers on in summer. At 8 am, the dogs are groomed and given a 15-minute massage (which is repeated in the evening). 10 am is a healthy breakfast of vegetables, boneless chicken and broth. As it gets warmer, the dogs are taken back to their kennels, where they rest under whirring fans, to be interrupted only for playtime (balls, toys and chasing each other) and dinner at 6 pm.

“They’ve done their duty; let them sleep in and enjoy now,” says subedar Rajesh Chand, 45, a trainer and handler at RVC. Chand has served in the army for 25 years, and is currently responsible for obedience training at the centre.

The retirees’ kennels are at the other end of the centre from the training grounds, lining a lush garden on one side and a little doggie graveyard on the other. The retirees’ care is overseen by civilian handlers Raj Kumar and Omkar Singh, who have worked here for two years.

“Dodger is a calm one. He got a commendation for detecting 7 kg of explosives and saving close to 200 lives in Jammu & Kashmir. But Mukul, a 10-year-old Lab, is my favourite. He is very loving and also naughty,” says Kumar, 25. Ask who’s the sweetest and he fires back, “Sab sweet hai (They all are).”

RETURN TO BASE

Grooming and massages are a twice-a-day affair. Civilians can adopt an ex-army dog, but only after very careful vetting. ‘We want the best for our silent warriors,’ says brigadier Bapu Parasanalli. ‘They are national heroes.’
Grooming and massages are a twice-a-day affair. Civilians can adopt an ex-army dog, but only after very careful vetting. ‘We want the best for our silent warriors,’ says brigadier Bapu Parasanalli. ‘They are national heroes.’ ( Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo )
It’s hard to see a dog leave, even if it is to go to a good home, the handlers say. ‘When we drop them off at the gate, it’s hard to hold back the tears. But we know they’re going to a family that’ll love them… a lot if not as much.’

Their lives may sound idyllic now, but serving in the Army exposes dogs to chemicals and explosives, stress and extreme climates. These conditions tend to lead to organ damage, heart disease, loss of smell and battle wounds. Their bodies tend to age faster, and average lifespan may be reduced by up to 30%.

Carefully balanced diets and round-the-clock medical care are therefore crucial. As are the massages and relaxation treatments. Every three months, each retiree undergoes a full health check, including dental exam. Regular exercise is crucial too, since these are dogs used to rigorous training.

Walk into the 5,000-sq-ft cookhouse and you see this attention to detail in action. The walls are covered in diet charts — for dogs of different ages, stages and metabolic makeup.

Flattened dough spins on a roti-maker; massive utensils simmer with broth or up to 100 litres of milk. Here, the day begins as early as 3.30 am.

“We have hundreds of mouths to feed and we have to feed them on time. We can skip a meal but we cannot let them skip a meal. They are dependent on us,” says subedar Hari Ram, 47, who is in charge of the cookhouse.

At least 1,800 rotis are made here daily. For the retired canines, the diet includes less meat and more easy-to-digest paneer, bhindi, palak, rice, soup and eggs. “We make mainly wet food for the retired ones,” says dafadar KS Chandra Bhanu, 42, a cook with RVC. “Like us, they too are in the fauj. It is our duty to serve them.”

Second innings

For the carers, it’s army-style discipline peppered with warmth. At the 5,000-sq-ft cookhouse massive utensils simmer with broth or up to 100 litres of milk, and the day begins as early as 3.30 am.
For the carers, it’s army-style discipline peppered with warmth. At the 5,000-sq-ft cookhouse massive utensils simmer with broth or up to 100 litres of milk, and the day begins as early as 3.30 am. ( Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo )

Shri Chand, 54, an administrative officer who’s worked at the RVC for 14 years, decided to adopt a retired German shepherd two years ago, after a few houses were robbed on his street. Kishi, now 10, is now famous and popular in Chand’s neighbourhood in Meerut. “He has served the nation after all,” Chand says. “We adopted him because he was trained well but we realised he is equally loving.”

Chand is one of the few civilians to have successfully adopted from the centre. Adopting a retired military dog has a waitlist of up to a year.

“We want the best for our silent warriors. They have lived a soldier’s life and if they can also get a loving home, there’s nothing better,” says deputy commandant (RVC) brigadier Bapu Parasanalli. “We have people who want to look after them. And why not? They’re getting a well-balanced pet who’s a national hero.”

Aspiring pet parents must submit their application to the Army Headquarters in Delhi. Each family is vetting thoroughly in terms of previous history of pet care, ability to afford good veterinary care and diet, etc.

“Even when they get adopted, we like to check in and get updates. We keep a record of everything,” says Parasanalli. The RVC may accordingly call on the family to check on the dog’s health, whether they’ve adjusted to their new home, or if there’s been a death.

It’s still hard to see a dog leave, even if it is to go to a good home, the handlers say. “They were born here and some even die here – with a proper burial and army salute,” says dafadar Khan, who heads the centre. “When it’s time for them to go, we drop them off at the gate. When they keep looking back at us, it’s hard to hold back the tears. But we know they’re going to a family that’ll love them… a lot if not as much.”

First Published: Nov 03, 2018 20:10 IST

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