Dog handler and de-mining dog
The widespread and indiscriminate use of mines and munitions during many decades of conflict has made Afghanistan one of the most heavily landmine-contaminated countries in the world. That is why de-mining programs make up a vital part of Canada’s overall humanitarian aid contribution. Humanitarian aid is one of Canada’s six priorities and is underscored by the desire to assist the most vulnerable Afghans in meeting their needs.
The Mine Action Program in Afghanistan (MAPA) is considered one of the United Nations top mine action programs. Having contributed up to $42 million, Canada is a leading international donor on mine eradication efforts in Afghanistan and has supported the MAPA since 2008.
De-mining is a very slow, intense, and meticulous process that requires patience and dedication; and that process often begins with man’s best friend. Whether human or dog, one must go to school to learn how to de-mine land. The Mine Dog Training Centre was established in Kabul in 1996 and officially opened in 1998. Meanwhile, MAPA has been in operation for more than 20 years and there are at least 300 dogs available for training, working, and/or breeding at the facility at any given time.
At the Mine Dog Training Centre, there are a number of different courses offered: for people, there are programs to teach how to de-mine and, how to become dog handlers and trainers; meanwhile, the dogs are learning how to detect mines. The dogs’ training begins as young as two-weeks old mostly with relationship-building exercises, until they are about three-months old. The trainers attempt to create a lasting bond with the puppies almost immediately by using praise and physical contact.
Once ready, each dog must pass a test in order to move to the next stage. According to one trainer, “the evaluation exams are very difficult, but that’s good because detecting real mines can be difficult as well.” The programs and the evaluations are designed and implemented by the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA), the training centre in Kabul, and in coordination with Canada and other international partners.
From start to finish, it can take more than 30 minutes to assess and de-mine one square metre of land. The dog begins by sniffing the area, if a mine or the chemicals used in a mine are detected, the dog signals to their human partner by sitting down immediately and either barks or whines. Dogs are trained to identify the various types of explosives and all the types chemicals found in mines even if the explosive or chemicals are buried several feet in the ground. The dogs sniff the area slowly and meticulously in concentric patterns. Once the substance has been found, the dogs are taught to remain perfectly still until released by their handler, which is the most important safety rule for both handler and the dog.
The human de-miner then starts the lengthy process of prodding the ground, marking the area and digging around the mine, which will be later destroyed. The dog, which made the discovery, is rewarded, using one of a number of positive reinforcement techniques such as verbal praise, petting, playing, and loud noises. The dog can also be given a specific toy that it associates as a reward.
MACCA has developed a community recruitment program where de-miners are recruited and trained within their communities. There are also mobile teams who are trained at the Mine Detection Centre and are then sent to different regions of Afghanistan to begin mine detection with de-mining dogs; they will sometimes return to their own communities for de-mining. The mine detection training program takes one month and the program to train dog handlers requires an additional month. Both the mine detection program for dogs and the de-mining program work together throughout the training as both aspects are used in practice.
One student enrolled in the de-mining training said, "I am participating in this program to help my countrymen and my community because it is important to make Afghanistan safe again." The average monthly number of landmine victims has declined by more than 50 percent since 2001 and 2009 saw the lowest number of landmine victims since 2000. To date, more than 390,000 mines and 8.6 million pieces of explosive remnants of war have been destroyed, thanks to the dedication and professionalism of many brave individuals and their well-trained canine partners. The de-mining teams of handlers and their dogs risk their lives in the complex task of turning the war-torn lands into fields and villages where Afghans can rebuild their farms and livelihoods.