Help for our four-legged heroes: the charity that looks after retired service animals

In 2016, the Countess of Bathurst set up the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals, which continues to look after blue-light families and their animals.

A lot of people don’t realise how much these animals contribute,’ sighs the Countess of Bathurst, founder of the National Foundation for Retired Service Animals (NFRSA). ‘They have dedicated their lives to keeping us safe. I believe we should come together as a nation and support them in their twilight years. It’s the least we can do to acknowledge that loyalty.’

When serving as High Sheriff of Gloucestershire in 2016, Lady Bathurst discovered that financial support for service animals comes to an end when they retire. ‘Naturally, handlers want to keep their partners and they can easily cover the expense of food, toys and kennelling, but the cost of veterinary care can be daunting, as insurance is difficult to obtain due to the dog’s age,’ she points out. ‘It’s unthinkable that an officer might have to consider rehoming their four-legged companion simply due to financial worry, so I wanted to do something to help.’

Launched in 2022, the charity helps with the medical and veterinary bills of retired dogs and horses across the police, fire, prison, National Crime Agency and border-force services. ‘Working alongside wonderful local retired-police-dog charities, the NFRSA fills in the gaps and is here to make sure our blue-light families and their animals know that all they do to protect us is valued,’ Lady Bathurst emphasises. ‘When those vet bills come in later in life, we’re here to help. It’s a privilege and I’m so proud of what the team has achieved.’

At the Metropolitan Police Dog Training Establishment in Kent, it is clear exactly how much the support of ‘Lady B’, as she is affectionately known, means to the handlers. ‘It’s great to have that reassurance for when the time comes for our dogs to retire,’ says the head of the establishment, Inspector Stephen Biles. ‘Being a handler is more than a job — these dogs are part of the family. They protect their officer and that creates an indescribable bond. After everything they do for us, we owe them.’


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‘These dogs save hundreds of lives, and not always in the ways you think’

Keela: retired general-purpose (GP) and firearms support dog

When far-right and anti-Fascist protestors violently clashed during opposing demonstrations in Dover in 2016, police officer Sam Appleby was grateful to have German shepherd Keela by her side. ‘We were in the middle of all that chaos and it was tough,’ she recalls. ‘But Keela looked after me, like always.’

Over seven years with the Kent Constabulary, Keela tracked offenders, recovered evidence and searched for missing persons. ‘On one occasion, she located someone who we believed was being kept against their will by a suspect with a firearm,’ Ms Appleby reveals. ‘Keela was a brave and brilliant police dog.’

Two years into her retirement, the German shepherd suffered a life-threatening stomach torsion and needed surgery. ‘Keela is my partner—it is my duty to protect her,’ states Ms Appleby. ‘I was looking at a bill of more than £6,000, but I told the vet I’d pay it. I’d get a loan, re-mortgage the house, whatever it took.’

After hearing about the NFRSA, she got in touch and the charity was able to secure a reduction for Keela’s treatment and cover the entire amount. ‘I will always be indebted to Lady Bathurst and what she did for us,’ Ms Appleby concludes. ‘She cares more about these dogs than anyone else.’

Bowron ‘Little Dave’: retired City of London police horse

Bowron, aka ‘Little Dave’, with owner Samantha Pawley. Credit: Simon Buck/Country Life Picture Library

It’s not hard to see why the police kept Dave on so long,’ observes Sam Pawley, proud owner of retired police horse Bowron, a Czech warmblood fondly known as ‘Little Dave’. ‘He’s reliable, inquisitive, full of character and he loves people — he’s an old gent.’

During his extensive policing career, as well as his day-to-day duties, Little Dave covered events such as football matches, riots, demonstrations, ceremonial duties and the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. After 13 years, he settled into an idyllic retirement with Mrs Pawley in Cambridgeshire, but, during a procedure to have teeth removed, Little Dave collapsed under sedation and had to be taken to Rossdales Equine Hospital in Newmarket, Suffolk.

‘It was awful, I was so worried about him. Thankfully, he was all right,’ remembers Mrs Pawley. ‘I paid the bills from the two vets by getting a zero-interest credit card, but when I posted about Dave’s recovery on his social media, Lady Bathurst got in touch — the NFRSA covered the costs so I could pay it off. I was blown away by her kindness.’

Now fully recovered, Little Dave is back to making the most of his retirement — although old habits die hard. ‘If he sees a crowd at the bus stop when we’re out, he’ll instinctively walk over to stand by them,’ laughs Mrs Pawley. ‘Just to make sure everything is in order.’

Buzz: retired GP and firearms support dog

When people think of a police dog, they tend to imagine a dog chasing and biting, but there’s so much more to them than that,’ asserts Dave Stuart of the Derbyshire Constabulary. ‘One of the best moments of Buzz’s career was when he found a missing person, a man who had written a note and gone off into a huge stretch of woodland. It would have taken a long time for people to search that vast area, but I sent Buzz off and soon we heard him barking. I found him sitting calmly with the man under a tree — Buzz was letting the lad stroke him. These dogs save hundreds of lives and not always in the ways you think.’

After a long career as a courageous GP and firearms support dog, Dutch shepherd Buzz retired at nine years old, but, one afternoon after a walk, he slipped as he jumped into the vehicle and broke his back leg. ‘The vet bills came in at nearly £7,000,’ Mr Stuart recalls. ‘You don’t think twice about paying it, but I’d have struggled. The NFRSA was able to give me a grant of £5,000 towards it, which made such a difference. You think about the amount of times Buzz has put himself in between me and potential danger—I owe him so much.’

Mollie: retired prison search dog

Retired Prison Dog Mollie pictured with owner Jessica Beardsworth. Credit: Jonathan Yearsley/Country Life Picture Library

Trained to search for drugs, alcohol and tobacco in prison cells, plucky springer spaniel Mollie was one of the best in the business. ‘Nothing fazes her,’ states owner Jess Beardsworth, whose father, Terry, a senior prison officer for HMPS North West search teams, handled Mollie. ‘There could be loads of noise and banging in the cells, but all she wanted was to do her job and get her tennis ball.’

After a terrible accident, Mollie had to have a front leg amputated and take early retirement. ‘As soon as we applied to the NFRSA, Lady Bathurst got in touch,’ says Ms Beardsworth. ‘The charity paid for Mollie’s wheels, hydrotherapy and physiotherapy. The support has been absolutely amazing and we’re so grateful. Mollie is recovering well — she’s such a determined, happy dog, we want to do everything we can for her. Having three legs doesn’t bother her — her motivation is still to get that ball.’

Reqs: retired fire investigation dog

Reqs with his PDSA Order of Merit Medal. Credit: Shaun Fellows/Shine Pix Ltd

IN 2023, the PDSA Order of Merit, awarded to animals that have shown ‘outstanding devotion to their owner or wider society’, was presented to black labrador Reqs, the longest-serving fire investigation dog in the UK.

‘I couldn’t be prouder,’ enthuses his handler, watch commander Nikki Harvey of the Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. ‘For the past 11 years, his numerous successes have often gone unnoticed due to confidentiality surrounding the criminal aspects, so for his hard work to be highlighted is wonderful.’

Partnered with Ms Harvey when he was one, Reqs went on to attend more than 500 fire-investigation sites. ‘Once the scene had completely extinguished and cooled down, Reqs would be sent in to search the debris for traces of ignitable liquids to help us establish how and where the fire started — and confirm whether it was an arson incident,’ Ms Harvey explains. ‘He’s been an essential member of the team.’

With his superior nose and search drive, Reqs worked tirelessly to gain his favourite reward: a tennis ball — which remains his toy of choice in retirement. ‘He’s a wonderful dog,’ Ms Harvey says. ‘I’ve registered him as part of the NFRSA family because of his age. To have such an incredible organisation supporting service animals is so reassuring.’