Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Cambodia training mine-detecting dogs

The San Francisco Chronicle

Katie Nelson, Chronicle Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

PDT Phnom Penh, Cambodia --

Five squirming puppies born in the outskirts of this capital city may hold the future to successful land mine eradication in Cambodia.

As part of the first litter of 10 mine-detection dogs born in Southeast Asia, the puppies spend their time wrestling and napping in a silky-soft heap. The government hopes these snuffling pups will become the nation's next generation of heroes, sniffing out TNT and exposing lethal buried land mines.

"Of all trained working dogs, the most difficult job is being a mine-detection dog. These dogs need to be at the top every day," said P.A. Bergstrom, a canine expert with Norwegian People's Aid who is developing the program for Cambodia Mine Action Center, a nongovernmental organization.

Cambodia has one of the world's highest rates of unexploded munitions, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Hundreds of thousands of land mines, cluster bombs and artillery shells are buried throughout the nation's jungles and countryside - lethal reminders of three decades of past wars.

"Even when land mines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance) do not directly kill or hurt people, they are a major obstacle to the development of the country because the contaminated land cannot be used for agriculture or resettlement," Deputy Prime Minister Sok An has said. "People cannot travel or access basic social infrastructures. Getting rid of land mines is a prerequisite to lifting affected populations out of poverty."

Expensive dogs

Since 2000, canine mine-detection teams have been used in Cambodia in four of the worst-hit provinces. Currently, there are 53 dogs in the field.

Experts say the optimum canine is a fully trained German or Belgian shepherd from Europe, which generally costs about $30,000. Purchasing such pricey foreign dogs has been an issue for impoverished Cambodia.

After the mine action center was formed in 1996, the organization attempted to turn local dogs into mine detectors. They sent 10 prospects to Sweden for training. But even though the Cambodian canines learned how to detect mines, the effort eventually failed. The dogs had difficulty trusting their handlers upon return to Cambodia.

"The life of a Cambodian dog is not like in Western culture," Bergstrom said. "Here, they're used for guarding the house and almost everyone knows the best way to get rid of one on the street is to bend down and pretend that you are picking up a stone, because that's normal treatment for local dogs."

So even though the Cambodian dogs learned how to find mines, they regressed once they returned to Southeast Asia, Bergstrom said. "They came back to their old behaviors. They began listening to their handlers less."

Training detectors

Since then, the center has imported dogs. But that could change if the current program's instructors can mold the puppies into full-fledged mine detectors.

"The dog is not easy to train," said Vim Lay Im, an instructor who handles Tess, a retired mine detector who has worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Angola and Cambodia. "The instructor needs to be strong and patient and get involved with the dog most of the time. ... It is hard at first, but it will be better once you grab the dog's heart."

The new trainees were born in March, the offspring of proven mine detectors. The parents, November and Frode, are Belgian shepherds from Bosnia.

The training process began almost immediately after the puppies were born: Bergstrom and trainer Huot Vannara played games with them, encouraging them to investigate and retrieve with the hope that playful roughhousing and fetch would help develop brave, curious adults with a "high-sniff frequency."

Deaths a setback

Last month, however, five of the 10 dogs died from canine coronavirus, which affects the intestinal tract. Bergstrom said the deaths underscore the difficulties in raising dogs in Cambodia: The disease is rarely fatal in Western countries, where vaccines and expert veterinary care are available.

The setback, however, won't deter Cambodia from developing its dog mine-detector program, Bergstrom vows.

"If even a couple of puppies make it into the field, the fledgling program will be a huge success," he said.

Cambodia and land mines

Cambodia is cluttered with land mines and unexploded ordnance from past wars involving the Cambodian military, the former Khmer Rouge regime, Vietnam and the United States. It is one of the most contaminated countries in the world, affecting nearly half of the nation's rural villages.

Between 1970 and 1975, an estimated 539,129 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia. Conservative estimates show that the United States dropped more than 50,000 tons of unexploded general purpose bombs and 3.75 million unexploded bomblets.

Since 1979, there have been more than 63,000 casualties from land mine and unexploded ordnance. One in every 250 Cambodians is disabled, and the proportion of amputees - 1 in every 384 people - is the highest in the world.

In 1993, Cambodia began its program to eradicate the mines. A 2002 survey identified 1,724 square miles of known or suspect areas. By 2006, 23 square miles had been cleared of 236,929 mines and other devices.

As a result, deaths and injuries are decreasing. Land mines and ordnance killed or maimed 1,154 people in 1999 compared with 315 last year.

The Cambodian government hopes to clear all land mines by 2012.

Sources: International Campaign to Ban Landmines; Cambodia Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority; Cambodian Red Cross/Handicap International Belgium; Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System; HALO Trust; Rand; Mines Advisory Group; U.N. Development Program; U.N. Mine Action Service; World Bank.

Canine mine detectors

More than 750 dogs are used in detection programs in an estimated 23 countries, including Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Angola, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Cambodia, the 18-month training program begins soon after the puppies are born. Initially, teachers stimulate the dogs with playful roughhousing and loud noise recordings designed to develop hunting instincts and an unflappable demeanor.

The dogs are then given a conical red rubber toy, which is used as a reward and as a teaching tool. By using increasingly smaller pieces of the toy, the trainers teach dogs to sniff out specific scents by putting the plaything into a carousel of stainless steel cans. Trainers also bury slivers of the toy in sand and teach dogs to sit once they have found it.

After dogs are able to detect a small sliver of the toy, the same tactic is applied to smaller and smaller pieces of TNT. Eventually, they learn to smell even the slightest trace of explosives in the air or on the ground.

A dog and his handler can clear at least 6,458 square feet a day. In contrast, a person with a metal detector can cover only a quarter of that area.

Sources: Norwegian People's Aid; Cambodia Mine Action Center; Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining; Cambodia Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority.

Neou Vannarin contributed to this report. E-mail Katie Nelson at

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