Great Britain

A Hornchurch solider and his Syrian rescue dog nominated finalists at Crufts

As soon as Barrie let Sean hug her, he knew she was did dog forever. Picture: Sean Laidlaw

As soon as Barrie let Sean hug her, he knew she was did dog forever. Picture: Sean Laidlaw

Sean Laidlaw

Former Hornchurch soldier Sean Laidlaw and his Syrian rescue dog, who changed his life, have been announced as finalists at Crufts next month

Barrie as a puppy in Raqqa, playing on Sean's rucksack. Picture: Sean LaidlawBarrie as a puppy in Raqqa, playing on Sean's rucksack. Picture: Sean Laidlaw

After nearly 10 years in Afghanistan disarming bombs in the Royal Engineers, Sean Laidlaw found himself back in Hornchurch finding difficulty with readapting to civilian life.

Feeling lost and aimless, he decided to go back to what he was used to.

Initially, he had been contracted to go to Syria and dispose of unexploded bombs for the US State Department, when the battle to liberate Raqqa from ISIS was raging.

But once back in the UK he said: "I felt like I had lost my identity overnight. I really struggled with civilian life. Everything was so much more simple there [in Afghanistan] - you either die or you don't. Here there was so much more to think about.

Barrie changed the morale of the camp in Raqqa as soon as she arrived, urinating in the boss's office to everyone's amusement. Picture: Sean LaidlawBarrie changed the morale of the camp in Raqqa as soon as she arrived, urinating in the boss's office to everyone's amusement. Picture: Sean Laidlaw

"I struggled with things like going to the shopping centre, big crowds of people - my mind was just racing."

So Sean returned to the Middle East and embarked on one of his most brutal missions ever.

"We were working disposing bombs in mass graves," he explained.

"Rebels had literally laden the bodies with bombs, so that when people came to claim their loved ones, they would be blown up."

On finding Barrie, it took Sean four days before he gave her a proper wash, only then was it revealed she was in fact a girl. Picture: Sean LaidlawOn finding Barrie, it took Sean four days before he gave her a proper wash, only then was it revealed she was in fact a girl. Picture: Sean Laidlaw

It was while on one of these missions that Sean heard a whimpering in a bombed-out school. On going to investigate, under a block of concrete, he found an Asian Shepherd-cross puppy, the only survivor of a litter of five.

Covered in blood and dust, he took the tiny puppy back to camp and christened it Barrie.

"It actually took me about four days before I had time to properly wash the puppy, and then I realised it was a girl! But the name stuck. I got a lot of stick for it," he said.

However, through the following difficult months, Barrie transformed the morale in the camp.

Barrie brought out the soft side of the men at the bomb disposal team, with everyone clubbing to look after her. Picture: Sean LaidlawBarrie brought out the soft side of the men at the bomb disposal team, with everyone clubbing to look after her. Picture: Sean Laidlaw

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"Everything changed." explains Sean. "Everyone clubbed together to look after her, making sure she had food and somewhere to sleep, she kept weeing in the boss's office but it was such a welcome distraction.

"To have a companion you can train and play with, it kept my mind away from all the things I was seeing and doing out there.

"She'd do everything with me - sit in the passenger seat of my car, eat with me. I even got a bulletproof vest made for her."

Little Barrie was rescued as a puppy from the rubble of a bombed-out school. Picture: Sean LaidlawLittle Barrie was rescued as a puppy from the rubble of a bombed-out school. Picture: Sean Laidlaw

However, when Sean's contract ended, the inseparable pair were split up, and Sean spent a subsequent gruelling seven months trying to get her back.

Eventually, with the help of the charity War Paws, he managed to bring her back to Havering.

But Barrie's magic, bringing happiness and working miracles, did not end there.

Sean explained: "She was big now, and I had no experience with big dogs, so a friend [Aneta] offered to help me look after her - and 12 months later we were engaged. If it wasn't for Barrie, me and Aneta wouldn't be together!"

Sean and Barrie play in the bombed-out city of Raqqa, Picture: Sean LaidlawSean and Barrie play in the bombed-out city of Raqqa, Picture: Sean Laidlaw

Barrie also helped Sean settle back into civilian life, as the perfect distraction through a period of transition.

And, as if Barrie hadn't done enough for Sean, when his father passed away in December, he says he doesn't think he could have coped without her.

"My dad was the rock in my family and losing him was the hardest thing ever. I was in an extremely dark place and if it wasn't for Barrie, I don't think I'd be here today."

"Rescuing her from the rubble, it seemed like that I saved Barrie's life, but I feel like she has saved mine," he said.

Now, 31, and a gym owner, Sean and Barrie are one of five devoted duos that will compete for the Friends for Life award at Crufts this year, with the winning pair being announced on March 8.

Speaking as an ambassador for the event at the unveiling of this year's finalists, James Middleton said: "The theme running through each of this year's Friends for Life category winners is the vital importance of looking after our mental health and well-being.

"Our dogs play a critical, non-judgmental, compassionate role in helping to keep our spirits up when it feels like everything is against us, and in leading us out of what can be some very dark places."