NEXT week will see the culmination of almost two years of intensive training by Swedish
military dog experts when between six to eight teams of mine-sniffing dogs and their
Khmer handlers finish their three week certification trials.
A Swedish dog sniffs for TNT According to Swedish Air Force Captain Michael Hedman, who heads the training team, a successful trial would see the first dog sniffer teams deployed very soon. However, he is prepared for a few hiccups. "Some [of the dogs] will miss some of the mines and have to be retrained," Hedman says, " but we hope to have between five and six dog teams ready [to join de-mining operations] after the trials."
The imminent deployment of the ordinance-sensitive canines follows an intensive two-year training period of both dogs and their Khmer handlers by the Swedish military.
The program got off to a rocky start in August '97 when it was discovered that most of the Cambodian dogs shipped to Sweden were unsuitable for the job.
Only four of the 12 Cambodian dogs are still with the program. The others were replaced by Swedish German Shepherds.
Swedish Air Force First Lieutenant Ivan Robertson, says that the Cambodian "dog culture" was to blame for the failure of the Cambodian canine recruits.
"In Sweden we've bred and trained dogs for hundreds of years, and in [Swedish dogs'] minds there is an idea that dogs support humans," Robertson says. "In Cambodia there's [almost] no contact between dogs and people, so it's very difficult to put [cooperation with people] into dogs' heads."
The mine-detection training involves sensitizing the animals to the smell of nitrogen present in TNT explosives.
"We make [the dogs' training] like a game, because a dog's life is really just a game," Robertson explains. "If the dog finds the TNT, it gets a reward like a toy or some candy...the dog learns that finding TNT makes the handler happy."
The sniffer dogs are taught to sit or lie down when a mine is detected. The mine is then charted and removed Due to Swedish quarantine rules, the German Shepherds will remain in Cambodia upon retirement, though Robertson stresses they will look for suitable owners when the time comes.
The Khmer handlers who will work with the dogs in life and death situations over the coming years also face the emotional trauma of their eventual separation from their canine partners.
"Older dog handlers in Sweden often cry when they end their service," Robertson says. "The only soldiers who are sad to end their military service are the dog handlers."