By Sharon Arnolda
“Best friends are paw-ple who make your problems their problems, just so you don’t have to go through them alone.”
From cuddly companions to comrades in the battlefield, canines are undoubtedly one of the most intricately involved animals in the human experience. Scientists believe that dogs started moving around with humans almost 20,000 year ago, since which time dogs have been bred and kept close to communities for their skills as hunters, herders, gundogs and for protection in general resulting in hundreds of modern breeds.
Evidence from literature suggests that dogs have been kept as pets by people on all levels of society; the involvement unsurprisingly entered the battlefield. The earliest recorded “war dogs” were present as early as 600 BCE where dogs were used by the Lydians in a battle against the Cimmerians, in addition to which the writings of ancient scribs such as Homer, Herodotus and Polyaenus indicate that dogs were present in the Xerxes invasion of Greece in 479 BCE. Dogs were initially used to lead, to tear down enemy formations and take down as many soldiers as possible. However with the modernisation of war the role played by canines in war grew to be more significant and intricate.
Military dog training units were not an idea until World War I, during which time Germany and the United Kingdom implemented dog training programmes. During this period dogs were used as messengers for military units and as “Mercy Dogs”, where the dogs aided the Red Cross in locating wounded soldiers on the frontlines. The use of dogs in the military of our country thus draws its roots from colonisation.
The Air Dog Unit of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Base Katunayake can be traced back to the then Royal Ceylon Air Force Police, which was discontinued in 1972. In 1978 the then Director of Operations A.V.M. Sosa started the section once again in the Air Force. The first batch of airmen were recruited as handlers in 1979 and the dogs and their handlers were deployed to the Bandaranaike International Airport by 1986. The unit is now known as the “Air Dog Unit’’ following its re-designation in 2013. The unit is now under Wing Commander Niroshan Kumarasinghe, who welcomed Ceylon Today at the facility.
As a dog lover there are very few times a visit to a facility with dogs leaves you happy as there is often a bit of cruelty or the slightest indication of sadness in the animal’s eye that makes you want to take each and every one out of there. Then there is every dog lover’s dream which is to find each and every dog happy; and that’s exactly what I found at the Air Dog Unit in Katunayake. As a certified lover of dogs, it’s my greatest pleasure to report that the dogs in this facility are looked after and treated with utmost care, none of them appeared to be under stress nor showed any symptoms of being stressed or uncared for. The puppies were all smiles regardless of what they were doing; which shows that the animals are loved in addition to being cared for.
The Air Force currently has 145 service dogs and 172 handlers, giving each dog a dedicated handler, who will be responsible for all aspects of the animal.
We asked Wing Commander Kumarasinghe about how the dogs come to the facility.
He shared with us that in addition to dogs that are brought from abroad they have a breeding unit at Diyatalawa; a handpicked location ensuring that the puppies have the ideal climate to grow in their initial stages. They spend about six months to a year there. Initial training mostly happens at Katunayake but is conducted at Diyatalawa on occasion as well. Initial obedience training starts at six months - after which they assess the pups’ assimilation power and group them into sections, sorting them out into categories to be trained further. At this point a handler is assigned to each dog and this handler will be assigned to the dog right throughout.
Making of a loyal friend
Dog handlers are given a basic training course of about four to five months with their assigned dog establishing the initial connection between the dog and the handler, grooming both into their respective roles.
Following the successful execution of what has been learnt during the basic training course they are given an advanced training of five to six months in which they are given basic explosive knowledge and detailed training in their respective area.
Wing Commander Kumarasinghe further said that if they find a pup too active or playful for serious work, such puppies are trained to perform at dog shows or to be guard dogs. The underlying good news: none of the good girls and boys are auctioned or sold off.
When inquired about how the dogs are bred in Diyatalawa he explained that, “The first heat in female dogs happens at around nine months, which is ignored. The dogs are not used for breeding during this time. Dogs are generally used for breeding only from the second heat, which is at around a year and a half. However, it depends on the availability of kennels and facilities for any new puppies. It’s not a must to use mature dogs for breeding when they are in heat. Adult female dogs in service for about two years are crossed if necessary. The dogs are sometimes crossed here or transported comfortably to Diyatalawa for crossing.” He further stated that Diyatalawa has veterinary doctors, staff and dog handlers to take care of the dogs and puppies, who are weaned off their mother’s milk at six weeks.”
In addition to its known services, the Air Force also plays an important role in ground operations, assisting in narcotic and explosives detection.
Amalgamating everyone’s experience
The recent batch of 20 Air Dogs was funded by the Civil Aviation Authority. These Air Dogs are made up of five Belgian Malinois, five Labrador Retrievers, five German Shepherds and five English Springer Spaniels. They are specially trained as sniffer dogs and will be deployed at International Airports.
Wing Commander Kumarasinghe explained that the dogs were brought to Diyatalawa where their initial training was conducted, giving them time to adjust themselves to the change in climate. He added that the dogs were trained by handlers with over 10 years of experience.
The six month training period was facilitated by two officers of the Narcotic division of the Police, the Kandy Kennel Division Training Department and officers from the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board. He further stated that the combined expertise of all the organisations resulted in an excellent training programme producing highly trained and competent dogs. Out of the 20 dogs that were trained eight specialised in narcotic detection and 12 in explosive detection, which make these pooches valuable assets of the Air Force.
Does breed matter?
Wing Commander Kumarasinghe shared with us that different breeds are better at different aspects of the job. He stated that there has been a rise in the use of Belgian Malinois in the military due to their high intelligence, hyperactive nature and inter-activeness.
He added that they currently use other breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, English Springer Spaniels, German Shepherds, Pointer Dobermans, Rhodesian Ridegbacks, Cocker Spaniels, Dalmations, Boxers, Bull Mastiffs and Rottweilers in their squad. He also explained that dog units are used in the operations of other arms of the military and Police and that all units work together when required. He also added that breeds such as Dachshunds are used exclusively to perform in dog shows.
The life of an Air Pooch
The daily routine begins early for the pooches that have their first meal before 8 a.m. following which both the dogs and their handlers’ line up for the Muster Parade, where each animal is examined by a veterinary doctor, a supervisor or an officer. Wing Commander Kumarasinghe explained that the cages are cleaned and the dogs are groomed before they are presented for the parade. He further explained that it is of utmost importance to keep the dogs well groomed. The dogs are checked for ticks and brushed several times a day. Their cages are also cleaned by burning the walls to make sure that ticks cannot survive in the kennels. The dogs are given dry food unless the vet instructs that wet food or supplements need to be given, he added.
Once the Muster Parade is done the dogs are taken for their training at around 8.30 a.m. where they are trained for a period of about two hours. He explained that “dogs can only be engaged for about 20 -25 minutes at a stretch” and that the dogs are therefore given breaks periodically while engaging in duty. He added that it is important that the dogs are transported to and from places of duty properly since it’s crucial that the dogs are comfortable in order for them to perform.
The animals are then taken to their kennels for the afternoon. The kennels were spacious with a roofed section at the back and ample space for them to move around. The dogs are then allowed to have their siesta till they are taken out for the evening for a walk or agility training by their handlers. The Wing Commander explained that this is done to strengthen the bond with their handler.
The dogs are then brushed and groomed before being given their second meal for the day. He added that they are normally given two meals of dry food unless the vet instructs that wet food or supplements should be given.
The retirement plan
Undoubtedly the highlight of the interview:
He explained that when a dog reaches about seven years, the dog is given retirement. This is usually done when the dog is showing signs of physical weakness, at which point the dog is taken out of active duty. However, the dogs are kept with their handlers and looked after and cared for till they pass away.
They are kept in the same compound and are taken for walks and given the same attention they were given while they were in service. He also explained that each dog is given a serial number and upon the death of a dog a report is made to Head Quarters and each dog’s cause of death is determined by a post-mortem.
Courses conducted at the Air Dog Unit
The facility offers: a Basic Training Course, Advance Training course, Tracking Dog Course, Search and Rescue Course, War Dog Course, Guard Dog Course and another Narcotic and Explosives Detection Dog Course which is conducted in addition to the basic training in detection of narcotics and explosives.
He also added that dogs and their handlers are given a refresher course every six months, while the dogs are given refresher courses at least twice or thrice a week to ensure that their skills are sharp.
The future of dogs in the military
The use of dogs in the military has changed over the years but like with many things the possibility of dogs being replaced with machinery is a possibility. A recent press release made by the US states that Tyndall Air Force Base will be one of the first to implement a semi-autonomous robot dogs patrolling regiment. The electronic canines use artificial intelligence and rapid data analytics to detect and counter threats or possible attacks.
However the question of whether a piece of advanced equipment will be able to replace the position of a dog remains questionable. In addition to their skills dogs also bring in a lot of intangibles; providing comfort and serving as companions to soldiers, bonds which last long after the dog has ended its time in service. In addition to which the sense of duty towards humans arising out of the loyalty and love of a dog cannot be replaced.
(Pix by Amitha Thennakoon)