Sasha served the Colombian National Army for most of her life; she was one more soldier fighting on the frontlines against the South American country’s terrorist groups. She was trained in explosive and anti-personnel mine detection since the beginning of her military career.
Becoming an expert specialist in this area, Sasha served in approximately 3,000 missions during six years of service, in which she detected more than 100 anti-personnel mines, saving innumerable human lives.
During Operation Sodoma, the military operation executed by the Colombian Army in September 2010, from which the death of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader aka “Mono Jojoy” was produced, Sasha detected eight anti-personnel mines close to the guerrilla leader’s shelter. But the terrorists launched a grenade very close to her, resulting in her untimely death caused by the explosive range. Sasha was the institution’s only casualty during Operation Sodoma.
Sasha was a 7-year-old black Labrador retriever, trained by the Colombian Army since her first year of life, and she represented half of her team –a human guide coupled by a dog for life in the Army’s K-9 operations.
Her human counterpart, who did not reveal his name during an interview in honor of the black Lab by local television program Vamos Colombia, remembered Sasha as being “a sweet, playful and very smart puppy who was completely devoted to her job.”
The Colombian Army’s K-9 Department currently has close to 3,500 active dogs, like Sasha, in 13 training centers distributed throughout the country’s main cities. The units fall under the Directorate of Military Engineers, which has been responsible for training and pairing up teams to confront challenges imposed by rivals as well as by nature since 1997.
The dogs are specifically trained in one of five specialties, including: mine and narcotics detection, search and rescue, installation security and agility.
Each dog is assigned to a human counterpart for life, and together they make up the teams that only end when one of the team members dies. “He is like a brother in the patrol. He is another soldier,” agree many of the non commissioned officers (NCOs) and soldiers that have trained in the different specialties.
The training is carried out in five phases of operational and terrain adaptation, each of them necessary to make the teams fully capable in each specialized field. These begin as games as soon as the dogs reach one year of age. The phases include:Association of smells: consists of permeating dog toys with different smells, including narcotics, explosives, etc., and teaching the dogs to recognize these by way of positive stimulation. Point-to-point tracking: is utilized on the battlefield in front of the entire troop. Collar or leash-restricted tracking: habituates the dog to only obey his master’s orders by use of these tools. Adaptation to extreme situations: consists of familiarizing the canines with loud sounds, textures of different types of terrain, different environments, weather, etc. Systematized area registry: so that the dogs learn exactly where to search, how to carry out searches and what to search for and find.
During a visit to the Colombian Military’s School of Engineers’ (ESING, for its Spanish acronym) Bogotá Canine Training and Re-Training Center, Diálogo talked to the NCOs responsible for the canine program and met many of the teams during their training sessions.
Sergeant First Class Rafael Viveros, director of the search and rescue program, explained that the use of dogs for this type of task is not only a logical move, but one that greatly benefits the force because, “[the dogs] have 250 million olfactory cells in comparison to the five million that humans have. In addition to their agility and speed, this makes them an important asset to find a person that may need help.”
The Army recruits or purchases the dogs from different breeding kennels, mainly Labradors or golden retrievers, for their agility, intelligence, ease of learning, good-natured disposition and in general, for the positive results gained thus far. But they also work with German and Belgian shepherds.
At the same time, the Army personnel look for specific profiles to fit the dogs’ human counterparts. They carry out thorough psychological testing in order to choose personalities that are kindred to animals and the work involving them.
The courses for the dogs and their trainers vary in length. For example, the canine guide courses for search and rescue and explosives detection last 14 weeks each, divided into 48 weekly training hours of classes, such as explosives detection techniques, crinology, first aid, canine training techniques, explosives, kennel maintenance and upkeep, and weaponry.
Likewise, the courses designed for the dogs last three months in which the pups learn to recognize smells by means of repetition and positive reinforcements. During training the dogs run through a field where they smell out a number of metal containers distributed throughout until correctly identifying the one holding a small amount of explosives. Once they identify it they sit next to it, a passive sign to their trainer that the search was successful. Given the case, the trainer rewards the animal with one of its toys, which in turn serves the dog as a stimulus, and is previously impregnated with the smell of the explosive substance it is being trained to recognize.
According to data from the Colombian National Army and statistics from the Presidential Program for Mine Action, 1,079 members of the Armed Forces died between 2000 and 2009, while 3,711 were hurt, most of them mutilated. “The participation of canine-soldier teams has been highly effective for our Army because the percentage of casualties and those injured by explosives –both, to our troops and to the civilian population, has been greatly reduced as a result,” said Captain Eliécer Suárez, chief of the Canine Department at ESING.
During the search and rescue of anti-personnel mines in the operational field, the dogs are trained to sniff through a given area until they successfully identify the exact place where the mines are buried. Just like during the narcotics detection course, they know that once their objective is detected, they must warn their trainer of the find through a passive sign. This is done simply by sitting close to the objective. “It’s difficult for a dog to make a mistake,” assures Sgt. Viveros, sitting next to Zeus, his German shepherd specialized in search and rescue.
Regardless of each dog’s specialty, or of the place where they develop their specialties, it is clear to all Colombian professionals dedicated to working with dogs that this duty has made them more human.