Meet the hero dog so popular he’s been targeted by the Kremlin (2024)

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By Rob Harris

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Dnipro, Ukraine: Amid the wailing of yet another air raid siren, the children at daycare have just one thing on their minds.

“Who holds all these neighbourhoods? Patron Dog! Patron Dog!” they sing in Ukrainian and dance.

“Dog Patron! Dog Patron! We need a whole battalion of dogs like him ... Dog Patron! Dog Patron! He’s one in a million”.

Meet the hero dog so popular he’s been targeted by the Kremlin (1)

In a war-torn nation that has elevated several heroes to a pedestal – from the Snake Island guards to a comedian-turned-president who was Time’s Person of the Year – one little Jack Russell terrier has a level of adoration to rival Australia’s world-famous Bluey.

Patron, whose name means “bullet” or “cartridge” in the local language, has become a national icon. The nearly five-year-old – bred to enter pedigree dog shows – is the highest profile member of an explosives detection unit that is clearing the Chernihiv region, where Russian forces planted landmines and booby-traps before they retreated after the invasion.

He has been credited with helping minesweepers find more than 300 devices in a country that remains the most mined in the world. Nearly 30 per cent of the land, or 250,000 square kilometres, is mined, according to official SES data – an area larger than Victoria.

Patron and his handler and owner, Lieutenant Colonel Mykhailo Iliev, have worked in tandem with engineers equipped with metal detectors, where the four-kilogram dog is trained to sniff out explosives that the machines miss.

Meet the hero dog so popular he’s been targeted by the Kremlin (2)

He is now so iconic in Ukraine that he’s inspired hit songs, an animated YouTube series and various forms of fan art in his honour. Among them is a sketch of him urinating on a Russian missile wearing his signature safety vest.

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The national postal company, Ukrposhta, has put on sale a collection of eight stamps bearing the image of this valiant four-legged soldier. In the shops of Kyiv you can buy plush toys, T-shirts, children’s books and fridge magnets bearing his likeness.

Patron received the Order of Courage from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May 2022 where he praised the “loyal services” of this “small, but very famous sapper […] who helps not only to neutralise explosives, but also to teach our children the necessary safety rules in areas where there is a mine threat.”

Meet the hero dog so popular he’s been targeted by the Kremlin (3)

He has since met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and has been photographed with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Orlando Bloom.

Iliev bought Patron as a puppy from a colleague as a gift to his son in 2019. He ended up being a gift to the nation.

“We were looking for a dog breed that travelled well and was compact,” Iliev – also the leader of a bomb squad in the city of Chernihiv – told a new documentary Saving the Animals of Ukraine.

“We also were looking for a certified pedigree, so we could raise him as a competitive show dog. But that never happened. The war got in the way.”

He says he doesn’t know of any other Jack Russells doing this type of work, with detection normally the domain of Labradors or German Shepherds.

At first, Patron ran for sticks, worked with a dog handler and was obsessed with cheese. But after February 24, 2022 he expanded his skill set by finishing a specialised training program. Iliev says Patron was introduced to the smell of gunpowder and got used to the sound of explosions.

“We just kept giving him explosives to sniff,” Iliev says.

When he smells it, he gives a signal to Iliev, who then works with his human teammates to find and defuse the devices.

    Patron’s Instagram and TikTok accounts were started from inside a bomb shelter near Chernihiv. Wearing a small vest, he was seen sniffing and digging searching for an explosive. His customised uniform looks sharp but also serves an important purpose.

    “We added a handle on top into the design,” Iliev says. “If there are wire-triggered landmines, this allows me to immediately pick Patron up and transport him to safety.”

    The very first social post went viral, and he now has over 400,000 followers and is the most famous dog in Ukraine.

    His profile has been harnessed by shrewd Ukrainian efforts to control the war’s narrative with viral messaging to counter Russian disinformation that aims to “develop proactive narratives” in the age-old tradition of using animals as wartime propaganda figures. A puppy plucked from the rubble and “recruited” into information warfare.

    Such was his success the Kremlin spread a fake news story claiming that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had canonised him, providing as evidence pictures of his “icon” supposedly displayed in one of the OCU churches.

    Patron’s dramatic wartime exploits now form a critical part of the country’s information strategy and morale. He is also often mobilised to give demonstrations, and to visit patients in children’s hospitals, particularly in the capital.

    “When Patron is coming, [the kids’] reaction is like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s here! He will tell me something very important’,” says Tetiana Kazanzhy, of UNICEF Ukraine.

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    But fame has not distracted Patron from his canine pursuits. He still likes playing with his friends and snacking on his favourite treats.

    “Patron just loves cheese,” Iliev says. “He is a very active dog that likes to have a good run with other dogs and then, of course, sleep.”

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