Mine Detection Dogs

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Mine Detection Dogs
Making the world safer, one square metre at a time

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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 work.

“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 Sudan.

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 Twitter.

“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

 

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