September 3, 2008 / 11:07 AM / in 9 years

"Leo" rules in gung-ho Afghanistan challenge

By Luke Baker

CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan, Sept 3 (Reuters) - The challenge is simple enough -- run away as quickly as possible.

The only problem is, there’s a highly trained, gnashing dog chasing after you and he wants to chew you to bits.

It may not sound like the most attractive proposition, especially as you have to pay to have a go, but it’s turned into a popular sport for gung-ho soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

And in the process it’s raised thousands of dollars for war veterans cared for by the British charity Help For Heroes.

The game is called "Beat the dog", which contrary to what the name suggests does not involve taking a stick to the hound but seeing if you can outrun a snarling, lean German shepherd, one of the dogs the army uses to track down the Taliban.

A volunteer pays $5 and is trussed up in a heavily padded suit, complete with face mask and big protective gloves.

On a command, the challenger has to run from a hideout to a mound of rocks, turn around the rocks and then run away. At the same time the German shepherd, called Leo, is walked to a mound of rocks about 25 metres away and then unleashed.

In one recent showdown, Lance Corporal Logan Wilson, a hefty U.S. Marine, suited up and made a mad dash for it.

Just past the rocks he stumbled over his own feet and fell forwards. He got up as Leo was bearing down on him at full tilt.

He took several more strides before the dog leapt in the air and hit him powerfully in the back, knocking him to the floor.

Once on the ground, Leo grabbed hold of Wilson’s arm and attempted to tear it off. Were it not for the padded suit, the dog might well have succeeded. Wilson did not beat the dog.

"He hit me real hard right from behind and there was no way I was going to get back up," said Wilson, a 19-year-old from the state of Wyoming. "It wasn’t so bad because of the padding, but that dog is real strong."

Leo weighs about 40 kilos (88 pounds) and can run at around 25 kph (15 mph) at full speed, his trainer said, meaning that he can land a hefty blow when he flings himself at you full pelt.

In the months that the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, which handles bomb sniffing and protection dogs in Afghanistan, has been running the challenge, no one has yet beaten the dog by reaching a wall about 50 metres from the rocks.

Some have managed to sprint around 25 metres, but most have been brought down within less than 10 as Leo and the other close protection dogs that get to play quickly run down their victims.

Not only has the challenge raised approximately $5,000 for charity, but it also helps to keep the dogs trim.

Without volunteers, Leo wouldn’t get a chance to sink his teeth into much other than his lunch, so the game allows him to keep in training. There’s every sign that the dogs take it extremely seriously too.

It took some effort for the trainer to get Leo to "drop" Wilson. He eventually pulled the dog up in the air by a leash until its front legs were suspended, and Leo then reluctantly withdrew his teeth from the thick padding of the suit.

"Good boy," said the trainer, Corporal Harry McKnight, as Leo ran his tongue over his huge front teeth and snarled.

Asked if there wasn’t a reward for Leo after his hard work, McKnight shook his head. "For him, the bite’s the reward. He just wants to sink his teeth in there and never let go." (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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