Dogs Sniff Out Landmines Across Afghanistan

By Danish Karokhel

KABUL, Afghanistan, January 2, 2002 (ENS) - A dedicated team of Afghan trainers and their dogs are perfecting techniques for landmine detection that are now in demand in trouble spots across the world.

With an estimated 10 percent of the world's entire stock of landmines laid across the country during two decades of conflict, it is hardly surprising that Afghans - or to be more precise, their dogs - have become world experts at finding them.

Afghanistan's Mine Detection and Dog Centre (MDC) - a local organization under the United Nations umbrella - is now training mine sniffing dogs sent in from as far afield as Britain and the Czech Republic, and sending others to problem areas such as Yemen and Sudan.


Landmine sniffing dog with handler from Afghanistan's Mine Detection and Dog Centre (Photos courtesy Adopt-a-Minefield (AAM))
Mario Boer from Germany, who works with the organization under a government aid program, said, "The MDC training programme is the biggest of its kind in the world and is a low cost, high success operation. "The techniques developed in this country are now being used in other countries suffering from the plague of landmines."

The program began in 1989, after the Soviet Union was forced to end its 10 year occupation by anti-communist mujahedin, who then turned on each other in more fighting that paved the way for the takeover by the Taliban. The student militia's brutal regime was only ended by a United States led offensive 12 months ago.

It was estimated that some 10 million mines were laid in the country during this nearly 25 years of warfare, ranging from small booby traps that can blow off a child's foot to monsters that can take out a tank. The firing mechanisms can be a simple pressure switch, a trip wire, or an acoustic or seismic sensitive device.

Deployed for as little as US$3 each, they cost up to US$1,000 to remove. These devices kill or injure around 20 people across the country every day - many of them children.


Deminer works near Jalalbad. (Three photos by Erin Snider courtesy AAM)
At the outset of the program, the dogs were bought from abroad and trained by American experts. But the cost of training each one, around US$9,000, was prohibitive for one of the world's poorest countries, and the MDC launched its own breeding and training program. They bought 12 dogs, 10 females and two breeding males, a German shepherd and a malinois from Belgium.

"At present we have 211 dogs, 130 of which are working in mined areas while the others are undergoing training," said Javed Ahmad, who heads MDC's training program. "We are getting between 50 and 60 new dogs a year from our breeding program, 80 percent of which are suitable for training."

Training begins when the puppies are just two months old, and takes 18 months to complete. They are then let loose in the minefields, where their extraordinary sense of smell enables them to sniff out the fumes coming from explosives, even those encased in metal and plastic and buried deep underground.


Detonated cluster bomblets, the remnants of the coalition strikes on Afghanistan to topple the Taliban.
MDC trainer Zainuddin explained that mines were normally laid between 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) and one meter (39 inches) underground, depending on the soil conditions. "Our dogs are guaranteed to find them at these depths. One of them discovered a mine buried nearly one and a half meters underground," he said.

The Afghan training program is far more rigorous than in other countries where the mines are planted and taken out by hand after each exercise. This often enables the dog to home in on the smell of the trainer left on the metal, rather than the scent of explosives.

"We wash off all traces of humans from the mines, let them dry in the sun and then bury them for two or three years before we start using them in our training program," Zainuddin said. "Foreign trainers are copying us now."

With so much invested in the dogs' training, and so much depending on them, it is no surprise to learn that they have their own veterinarian and a clinic with the latest equipment and medicines from Germany. "We are dedicated to keeping the dogs fit and free of disease," Dr. Abdul Hakim Hakimi said. The dogs are expected to be on active duty for at least five years.

The training starts as a game, using a rubber ball, and gradually moves to dummy mines and then to the real thing.

The dogs, on a 10 meter (33 foot) leash controlled by their handler, are taught to sit down next to the spot where they sniff out a mine. "Dogs are perfect for this work - in fact they are twice as efficient as machines," Ahmad said. "Machines can only locate metal, which means they dig out all kinds of objects. Our dogs are only interested in explosives, and can smell them through plastic."


These Afghani children from the village of Mazel Khurija have been warned about the dangers of landmines.
He said using dogs is less dangerous than other methods, adding that over the 13 years of the program, only 10 people and seven dogs had been killed clearing mines, while a further 26 handlers had been injured - a relatively low number for such an intensive and hazardous operation.

The operation is split into 18 groups across the country, with four dogs and 24 handlers and backup personnel for each group. "Each group clears around one square kilometer a year. So far we have cleared 90 square kilometers, which represents some 45 percent of all the territory in Afghanistan that has been cleared of mines. The rest has been done by other, foreign mine clearing organizations," he said.

Some 113 square kilometers have yet to be demined, and about 30 square kilometers (247 acres) of former battlefields cleared of unexploded shells.

"We are getting requests from all over the world for our dogs to come and help clear mines. Unfortunately because we are stepping up our program in Afghanistan, and have so much more to do, we can't spare many more of them," said Ahmad.

Tens of millions of landmines are buried across 80 countries. Someone steps on a landmine somewhere in the world every 22 minutes.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}