THE tawny mixed-shepherd dog that came to be known as Target had survived the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan and seen action on an embattled American base.
She was a veteran of countless fights with other dogs; had been shot in the leg, and lived through a suicide bombing.
But she did not survive a weekend in a dog pound in a quiet suburb of Arizona.
Yesterday Ruth Stalter, the director of Pinal County’s Animal Care and Control division, admitted that Target – acclaimed national hero and family pet – had been put down by accident.
“When it comes to euthanising an animal, there are some clear-cut procedures to follow,” she said in a statement. “Based on my preliminary investigation, our employee did not follow those procedures.”
Sergeant Terry Young, who adopted the dog in Afghanistan, said that his wife and three children were distraught. “The four-year-old is really taking it hard right now,” he said. “She’s saying we need to get the poison out of her so she can come home. She can’t grasp the idea that she’s gone.”
Sergeant Young was serving as a medic at Dand Patan base, near the Afghanistan border with Pakistan, when he first encountered Target, one of three dogs living wild that were fed by the American soldiers. They named them Rufus, Sasha and Target – the latter because the Afghan men they were training constantly tried to shoot her.
One night in February a man wearing 11kg of explosives stole into the base, pausing for a moment to pray, and headed towards the building that housed the American soldiers. The three dogs attacked the bomber, waking most of the base in the process, and he detonated the explosives in a doorway.
Five soldiers were wounded, and Sasha had to be put down, but Target and Rufus survived and were declared heroes.
After a fundraising campaign, the dogs were taken to America to live with the families of two men who had served on the base. They became national celebrities.
Target appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, winning the hearts of millions of viewers with her large brown eyes and apparent disregard for the trappings of fame. She was honoured by the Friends of Animal Care and Control of Maricopa County, in a ceremony at the Arizona Biltmore resort, in Phoenix.
Last Friday morning she was reported missing by Sergeant Young. A neighbour found her in the street, and that evening Sergeant Young came across her picture on the pound’s website.
He assumed that the shelter would be shut for the weekend – in fact, he could have picked up Target the next morning – but, as he told the Arizona Republic newspaper, he thought: “She’s in the pound, at least she’s safe.”
He returned on Monday morning and filled out the relevant paperwork. A member of staff brought out another dog; he said that it was not his and pulled out a picture of Target.
After an hour he saw a member of staff emerge from the shelter, sobbing. A little later, the director of the centre told him that there had been a mistake.
The short and extraordinary life of Target, hero of Dand Patan military base, was over. The family plans to have the remains cremated.