Ten squirming puppies born recently in Phnom Penh represent a new generation of landmine detection in Cambodia.
The Cambodian Mine Action Center bred the dogs, and officials there believe they are the first mine detection dogs to be born in Southeast Asia.
CMAC intends to train the brown and white puppies to sniff out TNT in order to locate landmines and other unexploded ordnance.
“Of all trained working dogs, the most difficult job for dogs is being a mine detection dog,” said PA Bergstrom, a canine search industry veteran with Norwegian People’s Aid. He serves as a senior technical adviser to CMAC and overseer of the development of CMAC’s new dog breeding program.
“These dogs need to be at the top every day,” he said. “If you compare it to a narcotics dog, you probably don’t need to be working six hours a day, five days a week. You’re working for a shortened time period, in a controlled environment such as an airport. And if you miss, it’s not the end of the world. If you miss, you won’t die.”
Cambodia is among the worst countries in the world when it comes to the abundance of landmines and unexploded ordnance buried throughout the countryside, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. CMAC teams have been using dogs to help clear those discarded weapons of war since 2000 from Preah Vihear, Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces, as well as Pailin municipality.
The canines are efficient at their job.
A dog and handler pair can clear at least 600 square meters a day, while a person using a metal detector can only complete about 150 square meters a day, said Sun Piseth, a mine and explosive detection dog officer with CMAC.
But it’s expensive: A fully trained dog imported from Europe is worth about $30,000, Bergstrom said.
Using foreign dogs wasn’t always the first choice. When CMAC was formed in 1996, the organization was determined to turn Cambodian dogs into landmine hunters. In 1998, the group gathered 10 prospects and spent thousands to fly the dogs to Sweden for training. The Cambodian canines caught on to the search process, Bergstrom said, but ultimately the effort was a failure.
Cambodian dogs are treated differently than those in the West, 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 you are picking up a stone, because that’s normal treatment for local people to local dogs.”
The result, Bergstrom said, is Cambodian canines that are less receptive or reliant on human trust and interaction. So while the Cambodian dogs did learn how to find landmines, CMAC found that the dogs were unreliable once they returned to Cambodia.
“They came back to their old behaviors,” Bergstrom said. “They began listening to their handlers less and instead just constantly patrolling for dangers and enemies, so the concentration level wasn’t there. They became Khmer dogs again, more or less.”
Changing those deeply ingrained personality traits within Cambodian dogs would take some seven generations of breeding in a controlled environment, according to research and breeding science, Bergstrom said. CMAC has been importing dogs ever since—until now.
The mother of the new puppies is named November. She is a lanky 15-month-old Belgian Shepherd dog from Bosnia with a long snout and brown-gray fur. Both she and the father, Frode, have been fully trained as landmine search dogs.
They were chosen for breeding because they excelled in their training and have energetic, eager-to-please temperaments, Bergstrom said. Their genetics—their small stature and health history in particular—were also major considerations.
“When you start training later on, you want to have as much [good factors] as you can in your back pocket with you,” Bergstrom said.
The puppies were born March 30 in Bergstrom’s house. They looked like small, sticky rats, he said.
Belgian Shepherds usually have six puppies at a time, on average. That November had six girls and four boys was “lucky,” Bergstrom said, because it gives CMAC more potential pupils to work with.
For the first three weeks, November stayed with her brood constantly, licking them, feeding them, snuggling with them as the entire clan slept together in a pile, said Huot Vannara of CMAC, who cares for the dogs on a day-to-day basis. During the two weeks that followed, November was weaned from her pups.
Separating the youngsters from their mother relatively early is a tactic that landmine search trainers believe will make the puppies more trusting and reliant on people, Huot Vannara said. It also keeps the puppies from learning any unwanted habits from their mother, who may instinctively act defensive and protective of her offspring.
As the puppies grow up, CMAC trainers will encourage them to chase and retrieve, Huot Vannara said. The hope is that they develop into brave, curious, enthusiastic adult dogs with a “high sniff frequency.” A battery of tests that will start when the dogs are 10 weeks old will measure these characteristics.
“It’s a totally new experience for the local staff,” Bergstrom said. “No one [in Cambodia] has any experience handling puppies before, so every day will be a total new day for all of us.”
Yet, despite being in unknown territory, the group has the experience of Bergstrom and his colleagues abroad to act as a guide. And the pay-off possibilities are worth it, Bergstrom said. Instead of bringing in an expensive, year-old dog with an unknown past, CMAC will track these dogs’ every movement and learn about their strengths and weaknesses as they develop.
“The best time to teach a dog is when they are kids,” he said. “The older they get, the more difficult it is to train them, just like people. In this case, the training and bonding begins from day one.”
Training a dog to become a mine detector takes up to 18 months of intense, consistent training, along with constant refresher courses.
Teaching the puppies how to search for mines will be framed as a game. Playtime with a red rubber toy, called a Kong, is used as a reward for good behavior.
The dogs will be taught at the CMAC training center in Kompong Chhnang province to seek out the Kong’s smell, using smaller and smaller pieces of the toy. Stray rubber bands can be confusing to the novice nose, the trainers said.
Eventually, once the dog can detect a sliver of Kong about the size of a pinhead, the same tactic is applied to TNT. Eventually a proper mine dog will sit to indicate that it has scented even trace whiffs of explosives in the air or on soil surfaces.
It’s a challenging process. “The dog is not easy to train,” said Vim Lay Im, a dog instructor who handles Tess, a retired mine detection dog who has worked in Bosnia, 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 when you catch the dog’s heart.”
The CMAC dogs are, in a sense, multilingual—taking commands in Norwegian, English and Bosnian, because many of the dogs are trained at a Norwegian People’s Assistance center in Sarajevo. Now, Cambodian dog handlers are introducing Khmer words into the dogs’ command vocabulary.
Yet it remains to be seen if the experiment will work. CMAC is already banking on it by building a young dog training center—a puppy pre-school of sorts—for the new brood to live and learn in at the training center in Kompong Chhnang. It should be up and running by next month.
CMAC has 53 dogs who work in the field with teams of handlers. If even half of the 10 youngsters are able to join or replace those older dogs in the field, the program will “be a huge success,” Bergstrom said, and would warrant expanding the CMAC breeding program.
And the fate of the other dogs? Even if they don’t make the cut, they at least have good genetics working in their favor, Bergstrom said, so they could become narcotics dogs or enter a less-intense line of work. Though what exactly will happen to them hasn’t been determined, he added.
Raising these puppies is serious business, considering that lives could be on the line if and when they join active landmine search teams.
These days, the dogs live in Bergstrom’s suburban Phnom Penh house in a small, tile-floor room just off the kitchen. Their chew toy-laden pen, despite the constant presence of a sponge mop, radiates the faint, sweet smell of urine.
“It’s like having 10 small kids around, screaming for attention and food all the time,” said Bergstrom, who also has two sons, aged 4 and 7, who frequent the nursery.
“[The puppies] love play fighting and biting on your legs and trousers. If you tire them out enough, they will go to sleep like babies. But at the first noise—if someone gets up to go to the bathroom at 5 am—they are screaming for attention and food all over again.”
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