Ginger Digest

Are we giving our working dogs the life they deserve?

Voices Category: 

Posted on 27th Mar, 2015: It was truly comforting to read that following a Hindustan Times story on the sorry state of the canine heroes of the Mumbai terror attacks, the police commissioner of Mumbai, Rakesh Maria, has drafted a new proposal for comprehensive retirement benefits for the sniffer dogs of the Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad. The national daily had previously reported about the sad state of affairs of Max, Prince and Caesar, the brave heart sniffer dogs who had sniffed out bombs – three RDX devices and 18 hand grenades - and saved countless lives as part of the operations to combat the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai.

While the human security personnel were awarded and celebrated for their actions, the dogs were reduced to living at the BDDS kennel on scraps that the trainers scrounged from around the campus. The dogs’ kennel was cleaned by a sweeper paid for by the kind contributions of the men who worked with these animals. The money for their medical and food expenses came from the budget of caring for the 10 in-service BDDS dogs. These four-legged officers who served their country, till old age put them out of action, were forgotten. Thankfully, animal welfare organisations and Good Samaritans took up their cause and rallied for justice on their behalf after the news broke of their suffering. Some even came forward offering to adopt the dogs. Here’s hoping that Commissioner Maria’s proposal will translate to real action on the ground, for the sake of these dogs.

The Science behind Sniffer Dogs

The use of the olfactory sense of dogs to assist human beings in tracking down criminals and their loot is a European idea dating back to the Middle Ages. In villages in England, residents were taxed for maintaining the constables’ bloodhound force. These hounds were excellent trackers. In Scotland, they were known as Slough Dogs. Parisian police dog squads were used to bust night time criminal gangs. In 1899, the first organised police dog force was setup in Ghent in Belgium, whereas the first police dog training school was setup in Greenheide in Germany in 1920. The most commonly used dog breeds are German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Labradors and Airedale Terriers. In India, you will mostly see German Shepherds and Labradors in the forces.

Dogs serve the purpose well, mostly because they are better at it than human beings.

The essential machinery is the same, but dogs have bigger and better noses. They can take in more air in every sniff and process it better due to the larger number of receptors in their noses. Dogs have 20 – 40 times more receptors, claims Professor Lawrence Meyers from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University in Alabama.  This means that even a slight whiff of odour in the air will be detected by a dog. But this is depended on the chemical that is letting off the odour. Dogs can smell eugenol, an oil found in cloves, at one-millionth the amount that humans can, while humans can smell acetone when existing in smaller concentrations than dogs can, explains Professor Myers.

Dogs are also built in a way that is better suited for on-the-ground operations.

Training the dogs

The usual methodology used to train sniffer dogs is to engage the playful side of a dog. The trainer begins by playing tug of war with the dog using a clean towel that has no smell of its own. Gradually, small amounts of various illegal items are placed in the towel during play such as drugs, explosives, or in the case of border patrol dogs, fruits and vegetables and saplings not allowed into the country. The dog then begins to associate these smells with his favourite toy and playtime. The dog is taught that if he/she sniffs out the smell of the substances, then the reward would be a fun round of playtime. Dogs are taught two different kinds of alerting systems depending on their function. Sniffer dogs at airports or part of drug squads may be taught the aggressive alert system where the dog will paw and scratch at the offending odour. Dogs in more sensitive operations such as border police or bomb squads are more often than not taught the passive alert system, where the dog will simply sit down next to the offending odour.

Sorry State of the Sniffers

In Australia and the Netherlands sniffer dogs are usually re-homed with their handlers and live with them post retirement. In the UK, some police dogs, reportedly, get a retirement pension of £500 a year for three years, while some others are put down ‘in last resort cases’. Though former service dogs seem to be popular in the US now, the common practise is to put them all up for adoption, failing which they are euthanized.

In India, as is evident from the case of Max, Prince and Caesar, sniffer dogs don’t have it easy. A stressful, demanding job and no retirement benefits – it’s a dog’s life alright.

There is a lack of adequate training for both the dogs and the handlers in India. Dogs are required to be given a refresher training course every three to six months to enable them to stay on top of their game. This is not so here. Moreover, there are no appropriate facilities for transporting, working with and housing these dogs. They work long hours, sometimes taking 12 – 15 operations in a day, which involves going to crowded places where they are most likely to be over stimulated. They don’t get the mandated break after 10 minutes of sniffing. They get irregular meals because their erratic work schedule and the large amounts of travelling in hot, noisy police vehicles that they are needed to do. Post 26/11 in Mumbai, the use of sniffer dogs have increased. And so have the cases of sick, overworked dogs suffering from acute depression, liver, kidney and lung disease being admitted at the Parel Veterinary Hospital in Mumbai. With no stipulated retirement age, these dogs are working till they are either to sick or old to move.

Apparently, the Railway Protection Force has not retired a single dog in its service in five years. A large number of them simply die of cardiac arrest and kidney failure, writes Maneka Gandhi in an insightful op-ed on ekantipur.com. As she opines the absence of modern, informed and appropriate training facilities for sniffer service dogs in the government service of India, you realise that dogs aren’t treated as living beings in the forces, they are just another piece of equipment to be used till it disintegrates.

The condition of sniffer dogs employed in private security companies (usually deployed in hotels and gated communities) is no better where these poor creatures are usually overworked or often treated with neglect. So it isn't just the government organisations but also the private corporations who need to be better regulated in this regard.

Needless to say, that it’s about time that the Animal Welfare Board of India drafts a specific set of rules to outline the working conditions, terms of retirement and employment, food and living areas for these hard working service dogs. The Home Ministry of India should be urged to fast track such rules being formalised as there are plans to ramp up dog squad support to battalions of ITBP, CRPF, and Border Security Force.

Here’s hoping an active and vigilante society can watch out for these hard working watch dogs.

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