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Saving Lives: The four-legged mine detectors

May 29, 2018

Through their amazing sense of smell, specially trained dogs are helping to rid the world of the devastating impact of landmines.

In a career spanning more than nine years, Hamilton helped clear hundreds of dangerous explosives on three different continents. He is an expert in his field, a highly trained mine detector; he also happens to be a dog.

Now enjoying a well-earned retirement in Norway, Hamilton is just one of hundreds of mine detection dogs that play a crucial role in helping clear former conflict zones of explosive remnants of war. Weapons that can blight communities long after the soldiers have gone.

And they are very effective – a single mine dog can clear on average 800 square meters (more than 8,000 square feet) in a single day, up to ten times as much as a human with a metal detector could.

The dogs are also able to detect mines and explosives that have been in the ground for more than 50 years. 

Superhuman smell

A dog’s nose works differently than a human’s. When a dog inhales, a fold of tissue in its nostril separates the incoming air. Part of the air is used for respiration but the other part is used purely for olfaction, or smelling. Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans, and it enables them to smell around 10,000 times more acutely than us.

This ability is why dogs are considered highly effective explosive detectors.

As part of its humanitarian disarmament work, the charity Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) has been training dogs, like Hamilton, to use that extraordinary skill to sniff out landmines and other explosives for more than 20 years.

In 2004, NPA established a Global Training Centre for its mine detection dogs in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is a rigorous process with Belgian Shepherd puppies trained over two years to smell for the specific scent of a landmine.

“It is about the whole package, it is not just the RDX or TNT that is in the explosive, but what it is combined with – the plastic, the metal, the wood,” says Hans Peter Risser, Head of Operations for Humanitarian Disarmament at NPA. “In Colombia, for example, it is not a factory-manufactured landmine but a cola bottle filled with explosives and set with a chemical, and the dogs have to be trained for that particular scent. A common mistake is to just train them on TNT.”

Mine detecting in action

Once training is complete the dogs are sent out across the world and, after a brief period acclimatizing to the new environment, they get to work.

Out in the field, when a dog smells the explosive, it stops immediately in front of it, sits down calmly and stares at the ground, communicating to its handler that it has found a mine. The dog is then rewarded with its favorite chew toy, motivating it to repeat the task. 

Since 2006, NPA’s mine detection dogs have reviewed and cleared about 113.2 million square meters of land in 18 countries, that is a larger area than the city of Paris. The charity currently has 54 mine detection dogs deployed in six countries around the world with another 65 dogs in training in Sarajevo and a 22 training in Cambodia.

“We know these dogs can do more but it must be the right approach to deploy them productively and safely in the minefield,” says Risser.

Keeping our animal heroes healthy

To date, no NPA mine detection dog has been injured or killed by mines or other explosive ordnance. But they face other risks. Working in some incredibly inhospitable climates, they are exposed to harsh conditions and potentially deadly parasites.

Ectoparasites, such as fleas and ticks, attach on a dog’s skin and bite or pierce it to feed. During this process, they can transmit a variety of dangerous diseases. And in countries such as Cambodia, a lack of veterinary services and available medicines means a single bite could be fatal.

“It is vital we maintain the health of the dogs. They have to be happy to work and are capable of working, so reducing health hazards is a serious business for us,” says Risser. “The support and contributions from companies like Bayer are critical, providing much-needed medicine, equipment and knowledge.”

Devastating legacy of landmines

There remain more than 110 million landmines buried in more than 60 countries around the world and each one has the potential to kill or maim. In 2015, an average of 18 people around the world lost their life or a limb to a landmine or other explosive remnants of war every day. Of those, 78% were civilians, and 38% were children.

Therefore, ridding the world of landmines and other explosives is crucial. But it is also a laborious, dangerous and expensive task. A landmine can take 10 seconds to arm and two minutes to lay, but could take a 12 person team a full day to locate and remove.

Without hero dogs like Hamilton, this task would be far harder.

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