Handlers and their dogs train to increase operational readiness in elite groups that protect public places.
The Salvadoran Armed Force (FAES, in Spanish) deploys its K-9 Unit (UC, in Spanish) daily to strengthen counter-drug operations and locate explosives throughout the country. Dogs also guarantee security in public and private places where Salvadoran civil and military authorities, as well as foreigners, work.
“Our teams [a working dog handler and dog] serve as a backup in operations against drug traffickers’ illicit activities,” Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Tito Martínez, commander of FAES UC, told Diálogo. “Constant training enables them to locate weapons, explosives, or hidden drugs in places that are difficult for humans to access, but traceable with canines’ sensitive sense of smell.”
The dogs take part in operations of the San Carlos Command; a team specialized in strategic support under the General Directorate of Prisons. Part of the command and UC’s mission is to prevent smuggling and prison escapes by safeguarding the perimeter around 18 detention centers and three juvenile rehabilitation facilities.
“Our main challenge is to stay a step ahead of criminals, because they always come up with new strategies to hide what’s illegal,” Army Corporal Juan Antonio Castro, canine specialist at UC, told Diálogo. “To succeed we need dogs to reach their top potential, not only physically but also emotionally. As such, we combine work and games, so that the animal is always willing to work.”
During a scent detection exercise, Cpl. Castro demonstrated Thor’s abilities. The three-year-old Black Lab proved very skilled and obedient. In less than 30 seconds, Thor found an artifact buried in the ground, a potential occurrence in large event venues such as heliports, hotel gardens, and sport fields.
“One of the unit’s greatest achievements was in 2011, when former U.S. President Barack Obama visited El Salvador,” Lt. j.g. Martínez said. “On that occasion, an armed person tried to break into the premises of the hotel where the presidential convoy stayed, by circumventing security measures. However, the intruder didn’t get far because one of the dogs detected the weapon.”
“We were able to see the dog’s efficiency at detecting, even at a distance, something that humans couldn’t do in similar conditions. The dog stood out for his bravery and promptness to identify what could have turned dangerous,” Lt. j.g. Martínez said.
UC celebrated its 35th anniversary in June. The unit was created in 1983 with the support of the U.S. Army K-9 Unit, which donated the first eight trained dogs, transferred the training method, and facilitated the training of 11 more dogs. “The U.S. method boosts the leadership demeanor of the trainer officer, guiding the dog’s strengthened sense of smell. The success of our operations is based on the pair’s mutual understanding to give and receive orders,” Lt. j.g. Martínez said.
The unit consists of 17 dogs: two purebred German shepherds, six Labradors, and nine Golden retrievers; 12 of them are specialized in weapons and explosive detection, and five in different types of drugs. FAES favors these breeds for their character, intelligence, and willingness to learn.
The Golden retriever is an active, powerful, robust dog, obedient and fit for the job, with a gentle, self-confident temperament. Labradors are agile, able to adapt to any place, and develop a passion for water. German shepherds are brave, loyal, and strong. The three have an exceptional sense of smell and work in harmony with their trainers.
Army Sergeant Juan Antonio Ascencio has been with UC for 10 years, three of those with Bruno, a Black Lab and Thor’s brother. “We live in constant training with them to guarantee best operational performance, because field conditions change. They should get used to urban auditory stimuli, different environments, scenarios, and types of transport, focusing only on what we track,” he said.
Bruno demonstrated as such in a simulated vehicle check exercise Sgt. Ascencio conducted. The team simulated stopping the car in a road. It only took seconds for the dog to identify a small package of drugs hidden in the rim of a tire. The situation could happen in the access roads to correctional centers.
The dog learns with training that starts at 6 months and continues for 12 weeks non-stop. Handlers and dog are trained to conduct meticulous tracking in vast areas, vessels, aircraft, and light and heavy vehicles, as well as search individuals.
The duo works and rests in alternating 24-hour shifts. The daily results are recorded in a notebook to keep track of each team’s performance. UC dogs can take part in more than 100 operations a month.
UC hopes to add more puppies to the training system in the coming months, after making initial reports related to behavior, character, and physical ability. UC receives continual support from the U.S. Army K-9 Unit, as emerging threats evolve and criminals devise new explosive artifacts and ways to hide drugs in compartments or vehicles.