If his dog had been a bit more courageous, Stefan Karrman
may have found himself working in Sweden doing K-9
search and rescue. As fate would have it, during training,
his German Shepherd suddenly became afraid of everything,
leaving Karrman to pursue a decidedly more global calling.
“I was wondering what I should do now,” Karrman says. There
was never any doubt in his mind that he should be working with
dogs in some capacity. “The Swedish Army—the mine action
centre—was asking for dog handlers, so I applied and went for a
two-day information session. They said: ‘If you’re still interested,
give us a sign and choose one of five dates to go to Stockholm to
do a test.’ They were looking for people who were calm and didn’t
get stressed easily.”

After being accepted as a dog handler for mine detection dogs
(MDDs), Karrman spent eight weeks in training and was then
assigned a dog, a three-year-old German Shepherd named Jackie.
“I took the dog home and trained a lot,” he says. “I spent more
time with her than with my wife.”

Karrman and Jackie did a six-month tour in Bosnia and three
months in Lebanon, returning to Sweden between assignments.
Then, an opportunity arose for a dog supervisor in the Congo.
Karrman landed the job without Jackie, left her and his wife, and
went to supervise eight dogs and handlers for six months.
“It was a tough time because of the problems with water out in
the bush,” he says of the difficulties the dogs encountered. “It was
also tough for the people.”

At the end of the six months, he had to make a decision: stay in
the Congo or take a post in Sudan as a registered MDD quality
assurance officer with the United Nations Mine Action Service, an
agency created in 1997 to serve as a focal point for global mine
action work.

Karrman chose Sudan and has never looked back. He’s been there
continuously since October, 2008, with very occasional short trips
home to see his wife.

“It’s amazing the work we do with dogs here that we can’t do in
Sweden,” he says, adding, “There are no mines in Sweden.”
Karrman says the dogs, mostly German Shepherds and Malinois,
with one particularly determined Australian Shepherd, love the

“You can see how happy they are when they’re working and how frustrated they get if they don’t get out to work,” he says of the
18 dogs in his program. “The German Shepherds are easy to train
and have a good nose for this work. The Malinois we compare
to a working machine as they never stop; you have to stop them.
It’s crazy; they like it so much they never stop. It’s funny to see
the one Australian Shepherd. It’s really unusual because if you
take 20 to 30 Australian Shepherds and test them for this work,
maybe you find only one or two you can use.”

Typically, mine detection dogs become operational at about 18
months to two years of age. Puppies are watched during play
with balls and if they love to push the balls around with their
noses, they are then tested in different environments. Successful
dogs also need a strong search drive, and must not be afraid of
noise or new environments. Within three months, most potential
MDDs are identified and begin training.

Explosives have a definite odour that trained dogs can detect. In
fact, says Karrman, the dogs are so aware of the scent of explosives,
they can detect it even when it is masked in other smells,
hidden in liquid, or covered with gasoline.
“They can find it there. People can hide it anywhere and the dogs
will find it; it’s really marvelous,” he explains.

In Sudan, the day starts early. The dogs generally work from 6
a.m. until 11 a.m., when they must stop due to the excessive
heat. Dogs work six days a week, and when not working, can go
for walks, do some obedience or remedial training, or even play
in their sheltered kennels. Special, high-quality food is flown in
from South Africa, but only for the dogs; handlers, who sleep in
huts, are expected to eat local food.

Karrman says the dogs are treated better than people and says
losing a dog to a landmine has never happened; they are too light
to detonate an anti-tank mine, and too sensitive to the smell of an
anti-personnel mine to get close enough to set it off.

Before any dog begins his daily work, he does a test box to make
sure he is interested in working that day. The dog sniffs a 10 x
10 metre box containing an explosive and if he detects it, he sits,
indicating to his handler that explosives are present, exactly as
when the two are working in the field.

Generally, MDDs are used as an area reduction tool, working in
low-threat areas. They smell the explosives before getting close
enough to detonate the landmines, and sit down in safety before
being removed to allow the manual de-miner to do his work. The
dogs are not used in high-threat areas with many mines present
because they become confused when there are odours from too
many explosive items.

In addition to the dog’s incredible sense of smell, speed is a huge
factor in the success of MDD programs. On average, a manual deminer
can clear an area of 10 square metres a day, whereas a dog
can do 1,200 to 1,500 square metres a day.

David McMahon, portfolio manager at the United Nations North
America Regional Office Mine Action Cluster, says most of the
dogs used for mine detection are trained in South Africa and then
flown into Sudan. Each dog carries his own passport for identification
purposes. After a working life of six years, the dogs are
repatriated, retired, and adopted by families.

The dogs are an amazing tool used to reduce the threat of mines
including anti-personnel mines, designed to be triggered by the
presence of people; anti-tank mines; and unexploded ordinances,
which are bombs, rockets, grenades, or shells that are still ‘live.’
Mines are often buried but can be also be found on the surface, disguised as candy, tempting children to pick them up. In
2008, landmines, improvised explosive devices, and “explosive
remnants of war” were responsible for 5,197 casualties in 75
countries, including 1,266 deaths. Civilians accounted for nearly
two-thirds of recorded casualties and, of those civilians, 41 percent
were children who encountered mines during daily activities
such as school or play.

In Sudan, 42,000 kilometres of roadways have been verified,
assessed, and cleared in the past five years, which means people
can return to their homes, work, fields, or schools. It also means
humanitarian aid can be delivered more economically by road
instead of by air. Much of that clearing has been done by dogs,
either working in the field sniffing out explosives or through a
lesser-known method called remote area sensing.

“With armoured vehicles, we drive down dangerous roads and
use a vacuum pump to suck air through a filtration system into
containment sample cylinders,” says McMahon. A GPS coordinate
is attached to samples, which are then sent to South Africa.
“A number of dogs check each sample and note positive or negative
[for the presence of explosives]. Then we go back and demine
those [positive] areas.”

The United Nations (UN) also uses mine detection dogs in
Afghanistan. Despite making good progress in clearing dozens
of communities, as of September, 2010, there were still hazards
remaining affecting 651 square kilometers and 2,120 communities
throughout the country.

Anwaruddin Tokhy works with the UN as an operations officer
at the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan, overseeing
the testing of mine detection dogs. He says there are more
than 200 MDDs in Afghanistan, and although they arrive trained,
they cannot begin work immediately.

“We train them again, as the soil is different here. As well, it
takes 15 days for the dogs to acclimatize. We assess how well
the dog was trained…and then do our own internal testing after
acclimatization,” says Tokhy. Dogs and handlers are matched
according to training and the abilities of the handler.

“If it’s a weaker handler, he can’t control a strong dog. This is
noted beforehand,” says Tokhy.

Being a MDD is not a way of life for most dogs, nor is being an
MDD worker a choice for most people, but for a select few, it is
a calling more than a job. Karrman says that it may just be his
intense desire to work with dogs that drives him to do this type
of work. But that, too, may be coming to an end.

He will soon return to Sweden after the completion of his contract.
Once back home, he will work with machines. “There are
not so many places you can go and work with dogs. It’s a small
[industry] to work in and not easy to find work. I’d like to see
my wife and then, if a job [working with dogs] pops up in the
world, I would go.”


The United Nations Mine Action Service

The United Nations Mine Action Service
(UNMAS) coordinates the efforts of 14 UN
departments, agencies, programs, and funds,
including the United Nations Children’s
Fund, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the United
Nations Development Programme, to provide
various mine action services that have assisted
in over 50 countries and territories.
In complex emergencies and peacekeeping
situations, UNMAS establishes and manages
mine action coordination centres, and oversees
landmine clearance and survey operations, mine
risk education, public information, and victim
assistance in countries such as Afghanistan, the
Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, and

UNMAS recently teamed up with Jeremy Renner,
star of the 2009 Academy Award-winning film The
Hurt Locker. Renner traveled to Afghanistan to
tour the oldest and largest mine action program
in the world, and to raise awareness about the
continuing threat of landmines and explosive
remnants of war. To learn more, please visit
mineaction.org or join UNMAS on Facebook or

“I don’t think there are many guys in my position—
I’m just a silly actor—that get an opportunity to
come out to Afghanistan at a time of war and get to
experience this.” -Jeremy Renner