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Sniffing out deadly leftovers

By 1lt. Kristoffer Egeberg
First published in
SFOR Informer#102, December 6, 2000

Trebinje - Cautiously and painstakingly Dasty moves forward, sniffing every inch of the ground. Suddenly he stops, tilts his head, and sits down. A mine is found, and a life may be saved. With a wagging tail, Dasty gets his reward before the job continues. A deadly job, even for man’s best friend.
Funded through SFOR by Canada and Norway, a lifesaving four-legged project is well underway. In a few weeks, six top trained demining dogs will be handed over, two to each of the Entity Armed Forces. Both dogs and their EAF handlers are under hard training by the Canadian NGO Canine Countermine. Soon they will be important and efficient tools in demining BiH, bringing the land back to the people.
“Training began late June, and is due to be completed late December. We have moved from Bihac to Trebinje to get better winter-training conditions,” said Maj. Colin Masson, Chief SFOR Mine Intelligence. He has been supervising the project and believes that the dogs will be able to clear land quicker and more safely than traditional manual de-mining techniques currently employed by the Entity Armed Forces.
The dogs are to be used in combination with flailing machines, sniffing every inch of the ground that has been flailed. Boxes of 10x10 metres are set up, and the dogs clear one box at the time.
“They are trained to recognise combinations of smells, for example explosives, plastic, and rubber. Then we start with real mines,” said Canine dog master G.J. Du Plessis. He has been working with dogs for 19 years.
“It takes four to five months to train a dog and handler. First you must buy suitable dogs. Here we use German Shepherds. They are strong, and do not break easily. Their whole attitude, nose, and social handle fits perfect to this kind of work,” said Du Plessis.
He explains that an experienced dog can sniff a mine up to a meter under the ground. 30 cm is no problem, while the training depth is 5 cm. One demining dog can do the work of 13 demining engineers, saving both manpower, time, cost, and being much safer.
“The handlers are brought in once the dog comes, so they can adapt from the beginning. From there, you start the explosive training,” said Du Plessis.
The handlers have been hand-picked from the three factions of the Entity Armed Forces, after interviews done by Masson and the dog-trainers.
The task of being a demining dog handler is demanding and dangerous, and the training just as hard as it is for the dog.
“The handlers must be able to control the dogs, and read his smallest signs. When the training is over, and the job begins, the dog stays with the handler as if it was his own. Therefore, the six handlers have been picked out carefully. We had also to be certain that they plan to stay in their armies for a long time,” said Masson. Each pair of dogs also comes with a Land-Rover, so they always have their canine with them on the road.
Dog handler Srdjan Koprivica from the VRS-Army and Pepo Pavic from the Federation Army are two of the hand-picked dog handlers. Together with their four-legged friends Hary and Dasty, they will start clearing real minefields early next year.
“This job is very important for us. Many people in this country understand that, but maybe not all of them,” said Koprivica.
“It is in my interest, and in the interest of my country, to get the mines out. Clearing minefields is more a mentally hard task. You need a lot of nerves. And it's a big responsibility, but we are ready to take it,” said Pavic.
They have no problem with training together, although they have different backgrounds.
“The mines do not know nationality. We have the same job, and that way we are the same. And in the future, we will take care of that job,” they said.

Related links:
Engineering - Mines and De-mining
Nations of SFOR: UK