Norway Help Cambodia Train Mine Detecting Dogs

The Cambodian governments hopes 10 snuffling pups will become the
nation’s next generation of heroes, sniffing out TNT and exposing lethal buried
land mines, writes Chronicle Foreign Service.
    “Of
all trained working dogs, the most difficult job is being a mine-detection dog.
These dogs need to be at the top every day,” said P.A. Bergstrom, a canine
expert with Norwegian People’s Aid who is developing the program for Cambodia Mine Action
Center
, a nongovernmental
organization.
    Cambodia has one of the world’s highest
rates of unexploded munitions, according to the International Campaign to Ban
Landmines. Hundreds of thousands of land mines, cluster bombs and artillery
shells are buried throughout the nation’s jungles and countryside – lethal
reminders of three decades of past wars.
    “Even
when land mines and UXOs (unexploded ordnance) do not directly kill or hurt
people, they are a major obstacle to the development of the country because the
contaminated land cannot be used for agriculture or resettlement,” Deputy
Prime Minister Sok An has said. “People cannot travel or access basic
social infrastructures. Getting rid of land mines is a prerequisite to lifting
affected populations out of poverty.”
    Since 2000,
canine mine-detection teams have been used in Cambodia in four of the worst-hit
provinces. Currently, there are 53 dogs in the field.
    Experts say
the optimum canine is a fully trained German or Belgian shepherd from Europe, which generally costs about $30,000. Purchasing
such pricey foreign dogs has been an issue for impoverished Cambodia.
    After the
mine action center was formed in 1996, the organization attempted to turn local
dogs into mine detectors. They sent 10 prospects to Sweden for training. But even
though the Cambodian canines learned how to detect mines, the effort eventually
failed. The dogs had difficulty trusting their handlers upon return to Cambodia.
    “The
life of a Cambodian dog is not like in Western culture,” Bergstrom said. “Here,
they’re used for guarding the house and almost everyone knows the best way to
get rid of one on the street is to bend down and pretend that you are picking
up a stone, because that’s normal treatment for local dogs.”
    So even
though the Cambodian dogs learned how to find mines, they regressed once they
returned to Southeast Asia, Bergstrom said. “They
came back to their old behaviors. They began listening to their handlers
less.”
    Since then,
the center has imported dogs. But that could change if the current program’s
instructors can mold the puppies into full-fledged mine detectors.
    “The
dog is not easy to train,” said Vim Lay Im, an instructor who handles
Tess, a retired mine detector who has worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina,
Angola and Cambodia. “The
instructor needs to be strong and patient and get involved with the dog most of
the time. … It is hard at first, but it will be better once you grab the
dog’s heart.”
    The new
trainees were born in March, the offspring of proven mine detectors. The
parents, November and Frode, are Belgian shepherds from Bosnia
The
training process began almost immediately after the puppies were born:
Bergstrom and trainer Huot Vannara played games with them, encouraging them to
investigate and retrieve with the hope that playful roughhousing and fetch
would help develop brave, curious adults with a “high-sniff
frequency.”
    Last month,
however, five of the 10 dogs died from canine coronavirus, which affects the
intestinal tract. Bergstrom said the deaths underscore the difficulties in
raising dogs in Cambodia:
The disease is rarely fatal in Western countries, where vaccines and expert
veterinary care are available.
    The
setback, however, won’t deter Cambodia
from developing its dog mine-detector program, Bergstrom vows.
    “If
even a couple of puppies make it into the field, the fledgling program will be
a huge success,” he said.
    Cambodia is cluttered with land mines and
unexploded ordnance from past wars involving the Cambodian military, the former
Khmer Rouge regime, Vietnam
and the United States.
It is one of the most contaminated countries in the world, affecting nearly
half of the nation’s rural villages.
    Between
1970 and 1975, an estimated 539,129 tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia. Conservative
estimates show that the United
States
dropped more than 50,000 tons of
unexploded general purpose bombs and 3.75 million unexploded bomblets.
    Since 1979,
there have been more than 63,000 casualties from land mine and unexploded
ordnance. One in every 250 Cambodians is disabled, and the proportion of
amputees – 1 in every 384 people – is the highest in the world.
    In 1993, Cambodia began
its program to eradicate the mines. A 2002 survey identified 1,724 square miles
of known or suspect areas. By 2006, 23 square miles had been cleared of 236,929
mines and other devices.
    As a
result, deaths and injuries are decreasing. Land mines and ordnance killed or
maimed 1,154 people in 1999 compared with 315 last year.
    The
Cambodian government hopes to clear all land mines by 2012.

 


 

Puppies
learning to be land mine detectors in Cambodia pl…

 

A trainer
walks with one of the dogs learning to detect m…

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