APOPO’s HeroRATs take around nine months to fully train. Throughout they are extremely well cared for, receiving an excellent diet, regular exercise, much personal attention and scheduled playtime, as well as regular care from a vet.
At four-weeks old the rats begin to be regularly handled by trained staff and introduced to everyday sounds and smells. In a short time they are at ease in their surroundings and with people.
At 10 weeks the pups are weaned from their mothers and introduced to basic clicker training where they learn to associate the sound of a click with a tatsty food reward. Then they are introduced to a tea egg containing explosives (TNT), when they touch it they hear a click and receive a food reward.
Scent discrimination training
They then go on to learn to distinguish between TNT-positive and TNT-negative tea eggs. The rats will only hear a click and receive a reward if they interact with the TNT positive tea-eggs.
Soil floor training
The rats learn to work in soil trays placed outdoors in different shaded areas. They wear a rat-sized harness and the tea-eggs are buried in the soil encouraging them to dig them up.
For the first time, the rats enter a field with real, deactivated landmines. They will first detect surface laid mines in a small area, and move gradually to deeper mines in larger areas. They tell their handlers they have found something by scratching at the surface above the landmine. After each stage of training they rats are strictly tested to a high standard before being allowed to continue to the next stage.
Before being deployed to a real minefield, the rats must pass a blind test where only the computer knows where the mines are. To pass they have to find all target landmines in a 400m2 area, making no more than one false indication. Once they pass they can graduate as bonafide HeroRATs!