Thanks to their acute sense of smell, dogs are playing a major role in helping to clear Cambodia of mines. Marissa Carruthers and photographer Rudi Towiro spend the day training with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre canines and their handlers.
It’s still dark when the team of de-mining dog handlers rise from their slumber. Quiet whimpers fill the dormitory at CMAC’s Kampong Chhnang province training centre as the dogs – sleeping in large cages strategically placed in front of their masters to help cement a crucial bond – simultaneously wake.
Following a strict routine is just part of the training regime that both dog handlers and their hounds undergo while preparing for the dangerous task of clearing Cambodia’s countryside of an estimated 3 to 5 million landmines, explosives and piece of unexploded ordnance left over from decades of unrest.
“To make sure the dogs and their handlers work effectively in the field, hard training and trust are essential,” explains mine dog detection officer Hong Rith. “We need to have them as a good team working together; therefore they must spend all their time together.”
From 5am to 6am, the handlers lead their charges for a hearty breakfast of 350g of dry dog food and inspect them ahead of the day’s tasks. As they wait for orders, the dogs’ devotion is apparent, but it hasn’t always been this way. In late 1997, when the first generation of detection dogs was shipped over from Europe, handlers were skeptical about putting their lives in the hands of man’s best friend.
“The first time a dog handler was introduced to one of the dogs, he ran away from it,” Heng Ratana, CMAC’s director general, recalls with a chortle. “People didn’t trust each other after decades of war, let alone dogs.”
But after more than two years of intensive preparation with help from the Swedish Armed Forces, Cambodia’s first demining dog squad was let into the field to begin sniffing out the explosives that continue to kill and maim. Since then, the dogs have played an integral part in clearing the 1 million explosives that CMAC and partner agencies have found during sweeps of the Kingdom.
Today, training takes much less time, with the majority of canines landing in Cambodia semi- or fully-trained. Within six months to a year, the dogs and their handlers are ready to work in the field.
However, with dogs shipped in from Europe, communication can be a problem. To be able to work with the animals, handlers must learn to speak in the native tongue of the animal’s home country, be it English, Swedish or Norwegian. “The handlers have to learn about 20 words in the relevant language to be able to speak to their dogs,” says Hong.
At 6am sharp, the dogs – mainly Malinois but also Labradors, Springer Spaniels and Golden Retrievers – start a grueling morning session. For the next four hours, field training sees the dogs re-enact the work they will carry out in the field.
The canines search for traces of explosives against the wind, where the scent is clearest, walking along a 15-metre-long white rope. With the dog handler on one side, the animal sniffs out 40cm sections at a time. A second dog carries out another check before the rope is moved on. When a suspected device is discovered, the dog sits down and receives a reward, in the form of a squeaky toy, as it leaves the danger zone. During training, dogs are taught to associate the scent of explosives with the toy.
“For them, it’s a game,” says Hong, who started as a dog handler in 1997 and now works as a trainer. “They smell an explosive and the reward is playtime with the toy. In basic training we teach the dog to search for the toy, then we mix in explosives. Eventually, we take the toy away and only use explosives.”
After sweeping the training field, practise continues with the dog and its handler put in a room housing a metal carousel with 12 arms. At the end of each arm is a jar containing different objects, such as tobacco, leaves, plastic and sand, with just one having explosives inside. Sure enough, as the explosive arms passes by, the dog sits firmly on the ground. Their sense of smell is further tested by searching for explosives in a field of abandoned cars.
From 10am to noon, the dogs exercise with an hour-long swim in a purpose-built tank and a long walk before lunch, comprised of another 350g of dry dog food. With Cambodia’s afternoon heat too oppressive to work, the rest of the day is spent bonding, playing and bathing.
“When we first started we didn’t feel confident with the dogs, but now we do and they are a great addition to the team – we’ve never had an accident with them,” Hong says, proudly.
Having proven to be up to 275 percent more effective than metal detectors in the clearance of areas with a low to medium density of explosives, CMAC’s team of 40 operational dogs and nine trainees will continue to play a major role in the country’s demining efforts well into the future.
And the dogs, who even have a pet cemetery devoted to them, could soon have new companions. Specialist de-mining rats are to be flown in from Tanzania, where they have proven successful in detecting explosives, and will be tested at a Siem Reap training facility.
“Very soon you will see the rat fly into Cambodia,” Heng says, adding with a laugh that he may face another “headache” trying to get handlers to trust them too.