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Dogs that save lives

Dogs vs. landmines in Colombia: Given the need to provide communities with cleared and safe land as fast as possible, efficiency is key to perform effective and timely land release. Therefore, since Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) began its work in Mine Action in the 1990’s, the organization has always sought new resources and skills for the detection of antipersonnel mines or other explosive devices found on the ground. As part of this search, NPA included Mine Detection Dogs (MDD) on its humanitarian demining toolbox. And, since their inclusion, dogs became an essential part of the organization.

Since the arrival of NPA to Colombia in 2015, and after the organization’s consolidation on its designated territories, eight MDD members from the Bosnian Global Training Center and the Cambodia Training Center have been included in the program’s operations.

Hapai, Tika, Anette, Diva, Gumo, Zarex, Divix and Rambo, all Belgian Shepherd Malinois, are an important part of the organization. Their keen sense of smell, hardworking and protective personality makes them suitable for this work.

The smell that doesn’t fail, but gets trained

Belgian Shepherd Malinois dogs are characterized by their agility, hyperactivity and intelligence, but that does not detract from the strict training they must receive in order to develop and maintain detection and clearance skills.

As part of their training, dogs receive lessons in several spaces for approximately five (5) available hours a day, seeking to ensure their adaptability and state of alert in the different areas and situations. Trainings begin with activities that encourage playing in order for the dog to become familiar with a toy or object that will then be impregnated with the smell of the explosive. Consequently, the dog will relate its work with the usual playful activities. Coaches often use the Kong to motivate and incentivize the dogs’ searching abilities.

NPA’s MDDs are trained through the carrousel, the brick and car search, and the training box.

The carousel is a triangular object, surrounded by holes that are marked with numbers. Trainers place recipients under the holes and fill one of such recipients with a bit of explosive. The rest are used as dummies and are filled with other stuff that can confuse the dogs.

Then, the dog sniffs each hole and stops where he believes the explosive is hidden. This exercise assesses whether the dog properly identifies the smell of explosives and that he is not being guided by the smell of its trainer. For this, coaches are more careful and make sure the whole process if aseptic, using gloves to avoid leaving trace of human presence on the carousel.

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Another common method to promote explosive detection by dogs is the brick search. This practice consists on stacking a considerable number of bricks and letting the dogs sniff them until they find the hidden explosive. When this happens, dogs perform the corresponding indications: sitting and pointing towards the explosive. At the end, dogs get a prize as a way to motivate further search.

Similarly, car tracking is also used. Here, trainers place explosives of no more than 2 cm in the car so that the dog looks for the related smell and finds the explosive.

Finally, in order to evaluate whether the dogs are doing a good job in tracking explosive smells, and is behaving correctly when finding a device, trainers use “the box.” The box is an area comprised by 100 m2 and simulates a mined field. Here, dogs carry a more delayed and complex search in order to get used to more extensive and complicated work. Through this method, trainers can evaluate the MDD behavior and their effectiveness in searching activities.

The areas they clear

Since NPA began demining in Colombia 2017, its MDDs have cleared 91,878 m2, which is equivalent to 13 soccer fields the size of the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid.

On average, an MDD team in Colombia, comprised by two dogs and their leaders, can clear around 300-400 m2 per day. This capacity varies according to national standards and regulations. For instance, Colombia’s national authority demands that an area has to be cleared by two MDDs, in order to make sure that each square meter is tracked by two dogs.

For clearance, the process is the following: the MDD leader, from the border of the area, gives a sign for the dogs to begin the search, the dog goes into the dangerous area and performs a linear round trip search, always sniffing the ground. The leader’s ability to identify the dog’s signals and behaviors are key to recognize when are there threats, or the need to verify some sectors.

Trust comes first and foremost; this is a team work

Kevin Tapiero is an MDD handler. He tells the story of him and his dog, Hapai, and what has meant to work with her for 1-year and a half. The process has been full of patience and love, explains Kevin. Given the fact that all NPA’s MDDs are trained to work in humanitarian demining since they are puppies, they often have several trainers. Consequently, the process of creating a bond and trusting one another can take time.

However, in Hapai’s case, building that trust with Kevin has been an easy-going process. The long work sessions have helped; as they spend a lot of time together, the connection that develops between them is similar to that of a pet and his owner.

Hapai arrived to Colombia in 2017. Before that, she worked in NPA Demining Programs in Senegal and South Sudan.

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Kevin and Hapai in Vista Hermosa, Meta, Colombia.

Although work will always come before leisure under this context, Hapai remains very loving and caring. Also, her intelligence allows her to perfectly identify when it is time to play and have fun, and when it is time to work; “she is a very professional dog,” says Kevin. His confidence on Hapai’s skills is strong: “she a is loyal, talented, and obedient dog.”

To sum up, we can proudly say that today, Colombia has less mines and more lives, partly, thanks to the great efforts that dogs, just as human deminers, apply daily to their work. The mission of Mine Detection Dogs in the Colombian countryside is clear: clear lands, build trust, and save lives.

29.08.2019