WILBER the border collie doesn't know he has a dangerous job; for him it's all a game. Finding the hidden bombs he's trained to sniff out of the ground means only one thing: tennis balls.
An army explosive detection dog, Wilber has been deployed to Afghanistan and his reward for finding something is playing with a tennis ball.
His handler, Lance-Corporal Nathan Cooper, says the selection criteria for a bomb-dog is based around their retrieval drive.
Fetching … handler Lance-Corporal Nathan Cooper and his trusty companion, Wilber. Photo: Colin Cosier
"They think it's a game, they're looking for a ball, and once they smell that explosive they'll respond to that, they'll sit and the ball will come from somewhere. Out of nowhere, they think the whole world is full of tennis balls potentially," Corporal Cooper says.
They also can't be gun shy.
A dog's position on the battlefield is at the pointy end. They sniff out the path ahead of a patrol, working 10 to 30 metres in front of their handler. The dog and handler are part of a team of engineers who make the path safe for the rest of the troops.
Lifesaver ... dogs such as Kel can do what a bomb detector can’t. Photo: Colin Cosier
In Afghanistan, the insurgents are continually modifying their improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by making them with ''low-metal'' or ''no-metal'' parts to avoid being picked up by mine detectors. A dog can smell an IED with no metal that a mine detector might miss.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force says of all troops injured since the start of the Afghanistan conflicto, IEDs have killed or wounded about 60 per cent of them. Over the same period, 50 per cent of civilian casualties have been from IEDs.
He says insurgents have killed or wounded 1163 civilians in the past 12 weeks alone.
Australia's bomb dogs have been casualties of war too.
Five dogs and one handler have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Sapper Darren James Smith, 25, and his dog Herbie were killed in 2010. Sapper Jacob Daniel Moerland, 21, was killed by the same roadside bomb.
A memorial to Sapper Smith and Herbie at the Tarin Kowt military base reads: "Side by side through dust & snow."
And one dog, Sarbi, was missing in action for 14 months before being found and returned by American soldiers.
Corporal Cooper has an it's-all-part-of-the-job attitude. "It sits in the back of my mind I guess … you can't be too concerned, you just have to get on with your job," he says.
Prospective bomb dogs are either found at shelters or donated to the army. A dog scout will even take a tennis ball to a dog shelter to recruit.
Once enlisted, a dog undergoes a six-month course of doggy boot camp where they're trained to sniff out base compositions of explosives, propellents, ammunition and anything else the troops need found. In Afghanistan they're given training on the insurgents' favourite munitions, many of which can't be found in Australia. They also have to adjust to the aromas of another country.
A bomb dog will generally work until they're about seven or eight years old or until they lose interest in playing fetch. They then become pets.