Explosive Detection Dog and Handler Sculpture

02 October 2015

Working dogs were first used by the Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) in 1918. These were British dogs working as messengers in the trenches of France for Australian sappers. In 1944 the 1st Australian Dog Platoon, RAE, began to use search dogs. The Army dogs' human comrades are known as Military Working Dog Handlers.

In modern conflicts, Army Explosive Detection Dogs (EDDs) and their handlers have provided critical support to the Australian Defence Force and civilian government agencies. The dogs help their handlers find improvised explosive devices, ammunition and weapons. To be trained for this role, dogs have to demonstrate a keen instinct to hunt, play and retrieve.

Strong bonds develop between the EDD handlers and their dogs. These brave and loyal dogs save lives. A number have been killed while on active service in Afghanistan. Their names are inscribed on the sculpture, which also commemorates handler Sapper Darren Smith, killed in Afghanistan with his beloved dog Herbie.

In March 2014, the Australian War Memorial commissioned Melbourne-based artist Ewen Coates to produce a commemorative sculpture that reflected, through a combination of sensitivity, insight and realism, the role of EDD dogs and their handlers within the Australian Defence Forces. The resulting sculpture, Elevation of the senses (2015), commemorates the service and experience of all EDDs and their handlers who have been involved in Australia’s participation in the conflict in Afghanistan. Elevation of the senses was funded by a generous donation from Doug and Monique Thompson.


Description of sculpture

Elevation of the senses (2015)

This sculpture commemorates the vital role and contribution of Explosive Detection Dogs and their handlers in war. The tunnel through the base of the sculpture alludes to the rigorous training undertaken by the dogs, while the rocky outcrops atop the columns represent the foreign landscapes to which the dogs and their handlers are deployed. The elevation of the dog on the central column, where it crouches eye-to-eye with its handler, highlights the deep bonds that are forged between the two, as well as the mutual dependence on which their work is based. The configuration of the columns refers to the agility and obstacle courses undertaken by the dogs, as part of their training. Within the main column is a hidden cache of weapons, visible only from the back of the sculpture in order to illustrate the danger of buried IEDs or hidden weapons that only the dogs can find with their heightened sense of smell.  Sitting in the bag, which forms the smallest component of the sculpture, is a tennis ball. The tennis ball is an integral part of  the dog’s training, as well as a valuable reward when the animal has located explosives.   

A number of EDDs and one handler have been killed while on active service in Afghanistan, and their names and dates of death are etched on the sculpture’s central column:

  • Merlin, 437 EDD. Killed in action 31 August 2007
  • Razz, 409 EDD. Killed in action 21 September 2007
  • Andy, 452 EDD. Killed in action 23 November 2007
  • Nova, 472 EDD. Killed in action 23 October 2009
  • Herbie, 476 EDD. Killed in action 7 June 2010.


Ewen Coates (b. 1965- )

Ewen Coates is a Melbourne-based sculptor and painter. He holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Fine Art from the Victorian College of the Arts (1999) and a Bachelor of Arts, Fine Art, from Deakin University, Warrnambool (1985).  He has held a number of solo exhibitions and has participated in group exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and Heide Museum of Modern Art. Coates has been a finalist in the Melbourne Sculpture Prize, Mt Buller Sculpture Award, McClelland Sculpture Survey and Award, Deakin University Contemporary Small Sculpture Prize and Lorne Sculpture Festival. His works are held in various public gallery collections in Australia and in private collections in Australia, United States and United Kingdom. Until recently he owned and operated a sculpture foundry and has cast, finished, engineered and installed numerous major public sculpture commissions around Australia.

Artist’s statement

‘In this sculpture I have sought to express the close bond that exists between dog and handler. The elevation of the dog symbolises the unique ability the dog has because its senses are beyond ours. The sculpture also highlights the dangerous work undertaken in this partnership between man and dog as they seek out and reveal hidden threats using the power of instinct and communication between the species’.

Ewen Coats



One of the best known Australian military working dogs is Sarbi, an EDD attached to the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) who disappeared during a Taliban ambush on 2 September 2008 (during the action for which Trooper Mark Donaldson was awarded the Victoria Cross) and spent the following 14 months ‘missing in action’. At the time, Sarbi was on her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, having previously deployed in 2007. Sarbi was later discovered by an American soldier and was reunited with her Australian handler before returning to Australia.

After a period of quarantine, Sarbi returned to Australia where he was discharged from the ADF and lived with her former handler in Queensland as a pet. In recognition for risking her life to save the lives of Australian troops, Sarbi was awarded an RSPCA Purple Cross Award at the Australian War Memorial in April 2011.

Sarbi died as a result of a brain tumour on 27 March 2015.