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Monday, January 30, 2023

The New Team Sniffing Out Landmines

You may remember our story about Magawa, the landmine detection rat that the Homeland Security Today team sponsors via APOPO, the global non-profit that trains Magawa and his fellow giant pouched rats. We even suggested that the rats may be taking over from dogs in the sniffing stakes…

Well the dogs have had something to say about that and now, on National Dog Day, APOPO has announced the inclusion of technical survey dogs to its team.

Over 60 million people living in 59 countries from Angola to Cambodia, do so in daily fear of landmines and other remnants of past conflict. Landmines remain as painful and dangerous reminders of the past, continuing to threaten personal safety, economic development and food security. Agricultural land is left unsafe to farm and grazing livestock is dangerous. Trade routes remain closed, cutting off communities and denying families displaced by war the chance to return home safely. Yet detecting these weapons is very tedious and therefore expensive while global funding is declining. 

Clearing minefields creates safe ground on which homes can be built and land can be cultivated. It gives new horizons and hope to people living at risk in vulnerable communities. By removing landmines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW), APOPO lays the foundation for recovery and restoring livelihoods.

Using an integrated approach of survey, vegetation-cutting machines, human deminers with metal detectors and mine detection rats, APOPO and partners have been releasing safe land quickly so that people can get their lives back on track.

With over 20 years of experience in research, training and successful operational use of mine detection rats, APOPO is uniquely positioned to train technical survey dogs. The APOPO dog training center is based in Cambodia and employs respected and experienced dog training experts with an extensive knowledge of land release methods and international as well as national demining authority standards. APOPO trainers carefully select Belgian Malinois puppies for training, and as our security friends know, this breed combines an excellent nose with a keen intellect. 

So how does it work? Prior to landmine clearance, areas need to first be surveyed. Traditional survey methods include the use of metal detectors, that require ground preparation and vegetation cutting. This makes the survey slow and expensive.

APOPO uses the special technical survey dogs (a.k.a. HeroDOGs) who can survey deep into an area without the need to prepare the ground or cut any vegetation. Michael Heiman, Program Manager for APOPO Mine Action Cambodia says a single technical survey dog can effectively survey an area of up to 4000 m2 per day across challenging terrain with high levels of vegetation. “Sniffing out the chemical compounds of explosives found in landmines they ignore scrap metal making them much faster at surveying hazardous areas than metal detectors.”

The dogs are trained to indicate when they find the smell of explosives from a safe distance away. Each dog is equipped with the Swiss developed SMART system – a backpack with Global Positioning System (GPS), a speaker and a video camera, that shows and records the dog’s search pattern and location. This allows the handler to instruct the dog through verbal command. When the dog finds an explosive item, the dogs are trained to sit down at a distance of at least one meter and wait patiently for their handler’s next command. This distance keeps the dogs safely out of harm’s way. The system also has the advantage of creating a GPS validated search record, an improvement over existing pen and paper search documentation procedures.

A team of HeroDOGs surveys an area on a minefield twice as fast as traditional methods. On top of that the system generates maps with the survey progress and all the findings, which allows for better evidence-based decision-making on which areas will be released and which need to be cleared.

APOPO’s detection animals are highly valuable assets, making animal welfare and safety a top priority. Just like the HeroRATs, the HeroDOGs are well cared for, receive an excellent diet, regular exercise, stimulation and enrichment and individualized attention from expert handlers.

HeroDOGs and HeroRATs play complementary roles. Technical survey dogs are used prior to clearance, together with the initial historical and geographical surveys that have been carried out to assess the probability of landmines. Detection rats are excellent for clearance of wide mine contaminated areas that have evidence of contamination.

APOPO says the use of HeroDOGs in technical survey applications will pave the way for even more effective use of APOPO’s HeroRATs combining the dog’s surveying speed and the rat’s accuracy of detection. Together, the animals will hugely reduce the time needed to clear a minefield and deliver safe land back to impacted communities.

Find out more and even adopt a HeroDOG at APOPO 

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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