Dogs Play Increasingly Vital Role in South American Police Operations
By Dialogo March 05, 2012
BUENOS AIRES — Last May, two Brazilian police dogs lost their lives during an dangerous operation in a forest near Ribeirão das Neves in the state of Minas Gerais. They took nine bullets from hiding criminals, ultimately saving the lives of their forever-grateful colleagues.
These four-legged officers, Dox and Lyon, died doing what they were trained all their lives to do: protect people and especially their fellow officers who trained them. Besides funeral services, a “Hall of Heroes” is being erected at the Minas Gerais Military Police headquarters in Contagem to honor the fallen canines.
Throughout South America, police dogs are registered and respected as officers. They train diligently day-in and-day out — usually with the same partner — which creates a special bond between trainer and trainee.
“Unknowingly, the dogs do some of the riskier work, which makes it difficult for their partners to expose them in dangerous situations,” said Rodrigo Conesa, director of the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police Canine Training Center. Conesa is in charge of building a police dog training center from the ground up.
The Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police has only been in existence for about two and half years. Inspired in part by the New York City Police Department and London Metropolitan Police, the primary mission of the new government agency is to provide security to the people. Given that most police dog-related activity like explosive and drug detection falls under the jurisdiction of the federal police, the city force — which is just ramping up — cannot make canine training a major priority for now.
Nonetheless, the city’s new police force has done what it can with limited resources to create a respectable dog training facility with 14 unusually cunning canines. Most of them have been donated. One large German shepherd, Crypto — who’s trained in security and patrols large city plazas on the weekends — was donated through the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires. Another black canine, affectionately named “Negro,” is one of the best drug detecting dogs they have.
Negro is essentially a mutt; a street dog that was adopted by the Metropolitan Police and then trained by a skilled young officer named Ivan Blatter.
From September to November 2011, Blatter was invited by the FBI to participate in a dog training seminar in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In all, 38 officers from Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay participated, but only 19 finished the course. The demanding course combined classwork with practical training, testing the officers’ endurance and flexibility.
“It was challenging both intellectually and physically,” Blatter explained. “But it gave me great tools and methodologies for training, which I am now testing out on Negro.”
In its effort to combat pervasive drug trafficking, Bolivia has become a regional leader in counter-narcotics canine training through its Training Center of Drug Detection Dogs in El Paso, Cochabamba. The center is one of the most important of its kind in South America.
All governments of the sub-region utilize trained dogs for police and military operations. These noble creatures have participated in some of the region’s most important search and rescue missions, such as the 1994 AMIA Jewish community center bombing in Buenos Aires, and Chile’s devastating February 2010 earthquake. They’ve also helped sniff out hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs, putting traffickers behind bars.
“The functionality of dogs in security operations shows that, even in the 21st century, nature provides capabilities and conditions provided that technology alone has not been able to supplant,” said Gastón Schulmeister, an advisor with the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police. “The continued, routine use of dogs for the screening of drugs, explosives and money in airports as well as for search and rescue in emergencies and disasters is testimony to this.”
Even as police and military forces increasingly rely on technology for intelligence, some situations call for acute sensorial perception beyond that bestowed to humans. Indeed, a police dog’s sense of smell is of greater value than its bite.
A dog’s sense of smell is infinitely more sensitive than that of humans, allowing it to uncover hidden drugs, explosives and bodies. This — combined with an innate intelligence — means humans can train them for jobs such as tracking, drug and bomb detection. They learn through play, so the best police dogs are also the most active and playful. They are trained by the promise of a favorite toy or play time. They paw, bark or, in the case of something dangerous like an explosive, sit quietly to identify the target.
In addition, police dogs are an ideal tool for dealing with security threats, crime and various natural disasters. Their characteristics give them a competitive advantage over their human counterparts; moreover, the physical presence of the dogs next to the officers intimidates potential offenders. Unlike humans, there is a universal understanding that the big, sharp-toothed animal can’t be easily outrun or reasoned with.
“While police dogs only attack when given the order, their very presence has a psychological effect on the public,” said Conesa, whose own dogs walk the city’s large public plazas to help maintain order.