“A good dog is an insane dog,” joked Norwegian dog handler Jergen when answering what makes a good mine sniffer. “At least for our purposes anyway. When I throw a toy for one of our puppies, I want him to hit the wall when he chases after it.”
The Norwegian People’s Aid Global Training Center for Mine Detection Dogs was established outside Sarajevo in 2004 in response to the imbalance of supply and demand for consistently well-trained dogs that meet the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS).
The facility is currently home to about 145 dogs of all ages, with a breeding center on the premises (this year alone has seen 17 litters). Like the U.S. Secret Service, the center exclusively uses Belgian Malinois, who are a bit lighter, less prone to injury, and can serve longer than traditional German Shepherds.
Training begins when the puppies are about seven weeks old, with the first tests of their natural abilities at about 10 weeks.
Instrumental to the training (all in Norwegian) is the use of the popular Kong toy, of which microscopic bits are hidden to hone the dogs’ detection capabilities.
After their extensive and intensive training, the dogs are deployed (with handlers/trainers) around the world, to such locations as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.
Jergen emphasized two important facts regarding the use of their dogs to sniff mines: (1) none of them have ever been killed in the line of duty, and (2) although only about 50% meet the high bar to qualify as professional land-mine sniffers (as opposed to weekend hobbyists I suppose), none of the animals are euthanized. Instead they are set free to torment tourists in Bucharest.
No, the remainder find other jobs with lower standards, such as law enforcement, and when they retire are usually taken in by handlers or others they’ve gotten close to in their careers, which average about 10 years.
I’ve seen many of those “don’t touch me I’m working” dogs being trained in the U.S., and I have to say I think the mine dogs actually got the better end of the deal here. The gist of what makes a good mine-sniffing dog is that he loves his work and considers it play. Every animal we visited today seemed enthusiastic and adoring of both handler and the exercises.
Though, to be fair, I would also enjoy racing around obstacle courses and jumping into a crate full of empty plastic bottles if anyone wants to hire me.
More information about the training center is available on their website.