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Barrie the war dog: how a veteran and a Raqqa stray saved each other’s lives

Seán and Barrie in Essex
Seán and Barrie in Essex Credit: Jeff Gilbert/Telegraph

Seán Laidlaw initially thought he’d heard an injured child. Somewhere under the rubble of an Isil-bombed building in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the sound of mewling escaped. Laidlaw, a bomb disposal expert and veteran of two tours of Afghanistan with the Royal Engineers, was with a small team of other soldiers in February 2018, clearing thousands of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) hidden in the city by so-called Islamic State. 

“We had just finished in one compound, so me and another guy were walking back to get tea when we heard really loud screaming. I got on the radio to our security team, who were watching out in case anything happened, but they said all was quiet,” Laidlaw, 31, says. “A few of us went over to where it was coming from and lifted a slab of concrete to see what was underneath. The moment we did, she shot out.”

The whimpering wasn’t from a child but a tiny, fluffy white-and-brown Anatolian Shepherd Dog puppy, no more than six weeks old. Laidlaw reckons she’d been stuck for a month, and by the time he got to her, she lay surrounded by her dead siblings and mother. It was, he says, “love at first sight.”

Barrie, as she was found Credit: Instagram

“I wasn’t really a dog person, I’d been attacked by a big Rhodesian Ridgeback when I was a kid, but there was something about her – maybe those eyes.” 

He fed her a biscuit from his military rations, breaking his tough-guy character, and spent the next three days gaining her trust. Assuming she was male, he named her Barry (the first thorough wash saw him corrected, switching to Barrie) and took her back to camp, to his boss’s initial chagrin. 

An American vet, working with a separate team nearby, came and checked Barrie over, vaccinating her against disease. Laidlaw continued to split his meals with her until they could find puppy food, and she slept near his bed. For two months they were inseparable – so much so that Barrie would join him on patrols, with a friend taking her lead while Laidlaw went and cleared a quick booby trap or excavated a mass grave. She was also there, lifting everybody’s spirits, when a Syrian Defence Force colleague was killed by an IED. 

Their friendship was also the first cause Laidlaw had to cheer up in several years. After leaving the military in 2014, he had been dogged by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and struggled to adjust to civilian life in Essex, where he worked as a personal trainer. To compound things, his girflriend at the time suffered a miscarriage. “That was when the lid really came off, the box I’d kept hidden away with all those bad memories from war came flying at me,” he says. 

The relationship ended, he began to drink, and soon he found himself sleeping in his van. “A bloke at the gym gave me his flat keys for a couple of weeks when he heard I was homeless, and I remember sitting on his sofa thinking there’s only two ways out of this: I can either sort myself out, or I can not be here...” 

Barrie in Syria with Seán's kit

The offer to go back to the Middle East as a private soldier came in the autumn of 2017, via a friend he met at a funeral. Laidlaw, who craved a return to the adrenaline and camaraderie of working as part of a team in a post-conflict zone, didn’t need long to decide. A few months later he met Barrie, but when he returned four months after that, they were forced to split up. “There was never any question of her not coming back to me, though,” he says. 

Reader, she made it. More than a year later, we are all – Barrie, Laidlaw and Netty, his fiancee, who was once a personal training client – in a cafe near Barrie’s favourite daily walking spot, the grasslands and woods of Hornchurch Country Park, Essex. Barrie is now huge, but the face is still the same as Laidlaw saw peeping out from under the concrete. He isn’t small either: all muscle, beard and tattoos, including one giant depiction of he and Barrie in Syria etched across his calf. 

Within a few days of finding Barrie in Syria, Laidlaw had posted an image of them both on Instagram and urged his followers to raise money £4,500 so that WarPaws, a UK charity dedicated to helping animals in Iraq survive the terrors of conflict, could ensure she was kept safe and found a good home. Before long, he decided that should be his home, so ‘Operation Barrie’, as he dubbed it, became an effort to reunite them. 

Barrie and Seán in Syria Credit: Courtesy of Seán Laidlaw

The target was reached comfortably (the internet loves dogs), but he and Netty, an accountant, were made to wait seven months before Barrie arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, ready to be collected. She had been smuggled through Syria and into Iraq on a lorry, before being quarantined in Jordan for three months, then flown the final leg of a 3,000-mile journey.

He had envisioned a perfect reunion, “but Barrie didn’t know who we were,” says Laidlaw, who now works for a company installing fitness equipment and part-time as an assistant paramedic. “Eventually she had a little sniff of me and I think she remembered. Then she stuck her head through the seats of the car, just like she did in our vehicle in Syria.”

Barrie adjusted well to Essex, but rescue dogs can recall trauma, and Anatolian Shepherd Dogs (which they’re fairly sure she is) are incredibly territorial, to the extent that they’re used to protect sheep in the Middle East, so it took a few weeks for Barrie to appreciate that she has a new, permanent home. 

It’s safe to say she’s settled in. Today she’s cock of the walk: basking in the attention of other customers in the cafe, jumping in any body of water she can find, constantly on the lookout for her favourite treat, Babybel cheese wheels, and followed by more than 16,500 people on Instagram – who know her as ‘Barrie the War Dog.’ She even has a military-style coat that’s become her de-facto uniform.

Barrie and Laidlaw's relationship is now a book Credit: Hodder & Stoughton

“They call it a dog influencer,” Laidlaw says, with a laugh, “I know – it’s not the way I thought my life was going to go either, but here we are. We’ve been to events where everyone there had a dog with loads of Instagram followers. Puggie Smalls is a friend...”

Barrie and Laidlaw’s friendship, saving one another from the horrors of war, has now become a book. I wouldn’t rule out a film, either. And Laidlaw, just a few years on from feeling utterly hopeless, is happy again. 

“I have my moments. I know how to deal with it now, but I’ve also got Barrie and Netty to help,” he says of his PTSD. “I had a really tough week not long ago, with a lot of work and shifts and the book, which might have been really worrying for my mental health before, but this time I just took a day off and spent time playing with Barrie. It was all I needed.” 

On the way home, I take a look on Barrie’s Instagram page. One of the latest posts shows her wearing a rosette on her coat, and explains that she recently won a prize at her local dog show. It was in the category of ‘Best Rescue Story’. The others didn’t stand a chance. 

Barrie: How A Rescue Dog and Her Owner Saved Each Other by Sean Laidlaw (Coronet, £16.99). Buy now for £14.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514