The jovial British soldier and his irrepressible dog worked and played together for months, and died on the same day. On Thursday they came home, flown back to Britain in a sombre repatriation ceremony for the soldier remembered for his empathy with animals and the companion he loved.
Lance Cpl. Liam Tasker, a dog handler with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, was killed in a firefight with insurgents in Helmand Province on March 1 as he searched for explosives with Theo, a bomb-sniffing springer spaniel mix. The dog suffered a fatal seizure hours later at a British army base, likely brought about by stress.
Military officials won’t go so far as to say Theo died of a broken heart — but that may not be far from the truth.
“I think we often underestimate the grieving process in dogs,” said Elaine Pendlebury, a senior veterinarian with animal charity PDSA. “Some dogs react very severely to their partner’s loss.”
She said it was not uncommon for pets to respond to an owner’s death by refusing food and becoming sick — and the bond between working dogs and their handlers is especially close.
“The bonding that I have seen between soldiers or police and their dogs is fantastic. When you see them working together, it’s really one unit.”
"Tasker was the 358th British soldier to die in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Theo was the sixth British military dog killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001.
There are calls for Theo to receive the Dickin medal, which since 1943 has recognized wartime bravery by animals, from carrier pigeons to a World War II commando collie.
The loyalty of some dogs is legendary, from Greyfriars Bobby, a 19th-century Skye terrier who guarded his master’s Edinburgh grave for 14 years, to Hachiko, a Japanese dog who awaited his owner’s return at a train station every day for years after the man’s death. Both are commemorated with statues.
Tasker’s uncle, Billy McCord, said the soldier had been due to leave Afghanistan soon and worried about being separated from Theo.
“He actually said at one point that when he finished his tour he was not sure what would happen to his dog and that he could be separated from his dog,” he said. “That was preying on his mind, but they are not separated now.”