Dogs and rats have complementary roles when it comes the landmine detection. Our landmine detection rats require ground that has been prepared in advance with little vegetation whereas our dogs are able conduct a technical survey in areas with lots of vegetation. The perfect deployment is a mix of dogs and rats.
Both Belgian and Dutch Shepherds are intelligent and hardworking breeds who can hold a high level of focus over a long period of time. They’re not easily disturbed by sights and sounds and their medium-to-large size makes them ideal for the field as they can cover rough terrain with ease.
Our Technical Survey Dogs live in kennels. Each dog has its own spacious kennel and they are looked after by kennel assistants who ensure they are comfortable, well fed, and have adequate fresh water available.
We welcome dogs into the APOPO family at the age of 12 weeks when much of the basic puppy training and socialization has already been completed. From then on, we start to train young dogs in basic search competencies using a Kong toy as the reward for correct behavior. We commence landmine detection training only when dogs reach adolescence.
It takes on average 8-12 months to train a Technical Survey Dog for the field. We use a reward-based process where the dog is rewarded for desired behavior; once they’ve identified the correct target of hidden explosives they’re rewarded with their favorite thing – a Kong toy!
Our dogs are examined internally and are required to pass internal accreditation before we declare them as ready for the field. Upon arrival in the host country, they are then required to pass a secondary accreditation test carried out by national authorities and the United Nations. Only dogs that have passed all of the tests with 100% accuracy pass accreditation.
If a dog does not pass accreditation, we either exchange them for another dog from the breeder, keep them with us and use them for training, or they move on to other types of work with external organizations.
Our Technical Survey Dog handlers and kennel assistants have been trained in canine healthcare and are able to carry out basic daily health checks to ensure an animal is fit to work in the field. Each day, our dogs are checked over for any abnormalities and veterinary assistance is sought if anything is found. Our dogs also receive periodic visits by a veterinary professional for a thorough check up.
Our dogs are exercised by handlers and kennel assistants every day. It is important for Technical Survey Dogs to stay fit as they spend long hours in the minefield each day. During weekends the dogs are allowed time to rest and relax and are given a gentler walk.
Technical survey dogs work in overgrown areas, equipped with a SMART system. The handler guides the dog by voice and directs the dog into the area to be surveyed and observes live images from the dog’s camera via smartphone. The dog searches a pre-defined area of land with the aim of justifying release of mine free land whilst also identifying truly mined areas that, if existing, are typically much smaller than the originally suspected area. If a landmine is found, the dog will sit next to the landmine and point their nose at the area until further instruction is given by their handler.
A SMART system is a small pack attached to the dog’s back which consists of a GPS (global positioning system) tracker, a camera, a loudspeaker and a beacon drop system. The SMART system has been developed for mine detection dogs by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) and Digger DTR with the initial funding for the sets coming from the Swiss foundation World Without Mines. We are currently running operational trials with Technical Survey Dogs in Cambodia in partnership with the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), supported by the City of Geneva and the GICHD.
We have operational Technical Survey Dogs in Cambodia and South Sudan and are considering additional deployment to Zimbabwe and Angola and are in discussions with potential partners in the Middle East, Laos, Vietnam and Turkey.
On average our dogs work 5 hours per week but this can vary depending on the task at hand, or the weather. Dogs are typically deployed in the morning to avoid the rising temperatures later in the day; they work for anywhere between 30-60 minutes before taking a short break ready for deployment again.
Yes. Our dogs cannot work when it rains as the scent molecules from a landmine typically rise up through the ground into the air and that is what our dogs are trained to detect. A body of water sitting above a landmine disperses these molecules wider into the air and if ample time is not given for the water to drain, the dogs may indicate the presence or location of a landmine less accurately leading to false indications. As our operations are often in hotter climates, we stop our dogs from working if the temperature rises above 33 degrees celsius to ensure their wellbeing. At the other end of the spectrum Technical Survey Dogs can be deployed to work at lower temperatures, with a minimum of 5 degrees celsius – far colder than our rats.
There is practically no risk to the dog and none of APOPO’s dogs have ever been hurt or killed by a landmine. Our Technical Survey Dogs are trained to sit at least one meter before a landmine and point to the location with their noses - they are 100% accurate in doing so. Hidden tripwires are no longer present in the areas where we deploy our dogs. If, in the future, we are asked to deploy dogs in areas where there could be tripwires we will identify and remove the tripwires first, before deploying our dogs.
Dogs are retired when their work sessions become shorter, beyond a threshold where there is a considerable difference between their productivity and that of a younger dog. We also retire our dogs if we identify a health issue which would prevent them from working effectively, or that would cause them pain or discomfort in the field. Some of our retired Technical Survey Dogs remain with us to aid the training of new dogs, in which case they enjoy all the same care and attention as our working dogs. Occasionally, we rehome our retired dogs to dog lovers after careful interview and assessment to ensure they are able to provide an adequate level of care, attention and handling.