Expert mine-hunters

from Norwegian People's Aid
Published on 05 Jul 2006
Felix, a German Shepherd, has been hunting mines now for five years. - It's a marathon every day. The dogs have to be in extremely good physical shape, says dog trainer Håkon Ovland of Norwegian People's Aid.

Text and photos: Fredrik Larsen

The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky and the thermometer has long since passed 30 degrees. A piece of land out in the North Bosnian countryside is soon to become cultivable ground for the local farmers but, before this is possible, all the land mines from the civil war have to be cleared. In the heat, Felix's nose slowly works its way forward across the uneven ground. Dog-handler Ibrahim has been Felix's boss for five years; together they have found over 30 landmines.

- I like dogs. It's both work and a pleasure for me. The work is risky but we get used to it, says Ibrahim.

A few hours' drive away, outside the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, Norwegian People's Aid breeds and trains dogs destined to go out in the world sniffing for landmines. Between being a new-born pup and becoming an experienced mine detection dog such as Felix, there is a year and a half of tough training followed by harsh, daily challenges when the dog gets out into the field.

- All of our dogs could have become police dogs. We have to have dogs who can bear working in 40 degrees for many hours a day, says Terje Groth Berntsen, manager of the Norwegian People's Aid Global Training Centre for dogs.

Previously sniffer-dogs could be fat Labradors which did not have to work a great deal. Today the dogs usually work four hours a day and the demands of the job are just as tough as for a top athlete.

New-born pups

Recently 11 pups made their entrance to the world at the centre. Over the next eighteen months they will learn to sniff out the explosive which is found in landmines and mark the site of any finds by sitting down. When they have mastered the technique, they will be sent out to work in Bosnia, Ethiopia, Cambodia or anywhere else in the world where Norwegian People's Aid is engaged in clearing mines.

- The pups begin their training when they are only a day old. We have a system of early neurological stimulation which means that we, as dog trainers, have certain tasks to perform which stimulate inborn reflexes. This means that our pups open their eyes at 12 days instead of the usual 20-21 days, explains Groth Berntsen.

- We turn the radio on and play back tapes of traffic noise; we try to create a certain amount of disturbance in the environment so that the pups are not shocked by the big wide world, he continues.

Investing time and energy in training dogs is well worth it. An ordinary manual mine-clearance worker is able to clear only a few square metres per day; a dog can manage up to 1000 square metres. About 50 dogs currently live at the centre in Sarajevo. Two are German Shepherds like Felix, the rest are Belgian Shepherd dogs (Malinois). This race is able to work longer shifts in extreme conditions according to training co-ordinator Håkon Ovland. Top quality dogs are imported from France for breeding purposes. The centre holds EU passports for all its dogs and keeping the dogs active and healthy has top priority. Expert training and healthy animals means that Felix and his colleagues will be able to keep on working until they are about 10 years old.

Hunting for prey

The training is based on developing the dog's hunting instincts.

- We are very concerned about the desire for hunting, playing and prey, says Groth Berntsen.

When a few months old, the dogs hunt a worn-out t-shirt or leather rag. Their jaws close upon the rag and, even in the roughest and most intense games with the trainer, they refuse to release their prey.

- Those who give up very quickly are potential family animals; but when a dog simply dives in with total focus on the prey, we stand and smile, says Ovland.

- The purpose of mine dogs is to sniff out the explosive which is to be found in all landmines. But what is it the dog actually smells?

- There are only two types of smell for a dog: interesting smells and uninteresting smells. Interesting smells cover everything to do with survival, food and sexual function. At birth, the smell of explosives is not an interesting smell to a dog. That's something we have to teach the dog, says Groth Berntsen.

Could have been "drug-hounds"

By rewarding a dog for finding particular smells, trainers can build up interest in smells which a dog would not normally bother with. Until the dogs are one year old, they have no idea what explosives are. The dog learns instead to find a rubber toy - the "kong". As the training progresses, the kong gets smaller and smaller and ever more difficult to find. For the next step, the trainer uses a little turntable with spaces for small pots containing various materials such as sand, stones, pieces of metal, cigarette ends, food remains, dog food and chocolate. Tiny pieces of the dog's toy, the kong, are placed in one of the pots before the dog goes round the turntable, trying to sniff it out.

- The dog has previously learnt that it will get a reward if it finds the smell of the kong and sits down in order to show its location. If it sits down in the wrong place, it doesn't get a reward, says Ovland.

The point is for the dog to learn to distinguish one particular smell among many other disturbing or tempting smells. Once the dog has learnt the technique, it is taught to indicate the presence of the smell of TNT. In the same way, trainers could easily have taught the dogs to find drugs.

The king, the dog's toy, accompanies mine dogs at all times. When Felix has done his job out in the field in Bosnia, Ibrahim makes sure that the toy pops up so that Felix can play. That is reward enough in itself for a mine dog. Petting and care is also part of the picture and sometimes the dog gets to sleep alongside his handler.

- A mine dog is not like a metal detector where you can just change the batteries and carry on working. In Cambodia, most of our dog-handlers are women. We have discovered that women care that little bit more than men. To be a good dog-handler simply means that you have to care, says Terje Groth Berntsen.