Sasha served the Colombian National Army for most of her life; her colleagues saw her as yet another Soldier fighting on the frontlines against the country’s terrorist groups. From the beginning of her military career she was trained in explosives and anti-personnel mine detection, completing approximately 3,000 missions during six years of service. During this time, she detected more than 100 anti-personnel mines and saved innumerable lives.
In September 2010, the Colombian Army’s Operation Sodoma led to the death of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) head Jorge Briceño Suárez, aka Mono Jojoy. During Operation Sodoma, Sasha detected eight anti-personnel mines close to Mono Jojoy’s shelter, but when her presence was detected, a grenade was thrown in her direction. Sasha’s untimely death became the institution’s only casualty during the operation.
Sasha was a 7-year-old black Labrador retriever, trained by the Colombian Army since her first year of life. She represented half of her team — as human guides are coupled with a dog 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 natural disasters and enemy challenges 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. Many of the noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and Soldiers who have trained in the different specialties agree that these dogs are “like a brother in the patrol, another Soldier.”
The training is carried out in five phases of operational and terrain adaptation. Each is necessary to make the teams fully capable in their specialized field. As soon as the dogs reach one year of age, the trainings are set up as games. The phases include:
- Association of smells: consists of permeating dog toys with different smells, including narcotics and explosives, and teaching the dogs to recognize these by way of positive reinforcement.
- Collar or leash-restricted tracking: accustoms the dog to only obey his master’s orders by use of these tools.
- Adaptation to extreme situations: familiarizes the canines with loud sounds, textures of different types of terrain, different environments, weather, etc.
- Systematized area registry: teaches the dogs 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) Canine Training and Retraining Center in Bogotá, Diálogo talked to the NCOs responsible for the canine program. Sergeant First Class Rafael Viveros, director of the search and rescue program, explained that the use of dogs for this task is not only a logical move, but also one that greatly benefits the force. “[The dogs] have 250 million olfactory cells in comparison to the 5 million that humans have,” said Sgt. Viveros. “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 Labs 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 in the human counterparts. Psychological tests are used to select people with 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 as well as the explosives detection course last 14 weeks each. These courses are carried out during 48 weekly training hours of classes. The classes include topics such as explosives detection techniques, first aid, canine training techniques, weaponry, as well as kennel hygiene and maintenance.
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, dogs are trained to sniff through a given area until they successfully identify the exact place where the mines are buried. The dogs 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 trained in search and rescue.
Colombia’s Air Force (FAC, for its Spanish acronym) has its own Military Canine Training Center that has trained and bred military dogs since 2006. Currently, the Military Canine Training Center (CICAM, for its Spanish acronym) has 158 dogs of varying ages, mainly Belgian shepherds.
The main difference between the two services is that the FAC’s canine units are not exposed to “hot zones” in the operating field, like those trained by the country’s Army. “The pups remain with their mothers for two months, at which point they are introduced to different processes of early stimulation,” said Lieutenant Omar Reátiga Rincón, veterinarian and instructor in charge of the training program at CICAM.