The Work of the Mine Detection Dog Center in Bosnia & Herzegovina

By Marija Trlin, project manager responsible for public and donor relations within MDDC

Introduction:

It is a well-known fact that the last war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was brutal in so many ways: the country and its people suffered many hardships. In addition to the thousands of people who lost their lives, and families who lost their homes, one of the terrible legacies of the war that erupted in the 1990s are mines left to lurk for their new victims. Landmines- weapons of war – have become weapons against civilians, making safe life and progress impossible. The demining process in BiH began immediately after the war, but the situation with minefields in this country is so complex that the demining process continues even today. Consequently, Bosnia and Herzegovina developed expertise in dealing with mine contamination, and has outstanding results in using mine detection dogs. One of the largest donors in mine action, the United States, initiated the establishment of the Mine Detection Dog Center in Bosnia and Herzegovina, abbreviated MDDC, in late 2002. Bosnia and Herzegovina received and still receives a great support, so we decided to return the favor through the training of mine detection dogs for partner organizations around the world. Mine detection dogs proved to be an excellent tool in reducing large mine suspected areas to actual mine contaminated area. The center was build outside the town of Konjic, in a modern facility with numerous buildings, offices, spacious kennels, veterinarian station and large training fields, all surrounded with breathtaking mountains and lakes.

Overview:

MDDC today operates as a non-governmental organization with the head office in Sarajevo and training capacities in Konjic. Funds for the first three years of operations were provided by the US government, but the MDDC have become self-sustainable through the implementation of mine action projects, most of them supported again by the United States. The goal of establishing the MDDC was to train mine detection dog teams for the needs of mine action centers, governmental and non-governmental, and commercial demining organizations that use mine detection dogs in their operations. MDDC soon developed its training techniques, invested in staff training and became recognizable in the region of Southeast Europe, but also beyond, as a center that trains high-quality teams of service dogs. Indeed, the MDDC not only trains mine detection dogs, but also explosive detection dog teams, narcotic detection, police patrol, and search and rescue dogs. Through its work, the MDDC has contributed to improving the capacity of mine detection dog teams in 11 countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Angola, Turkey and Albania.

However, in an effort to address the major challenges and problems of mine contamination in neighboring countries and around the world, thee MDDC has expanded its scope of activities and started implementing demining projects, mine victim assistance projects, fundraising for mine affected communities and support for demining projects, mine risk education and land release. MDDC is the author of an adopted regional standard for the use of mine detection dogs. The Center also organizes roundtables and participates in discussions related to mine action aiming to improve the theory and practice of the use of mine detection dogs and other activities within mine action as well as the improvement of standards.

Mine Detection Dog Training:

Training of mine detection dog teams is a process that requires a lot of effort and love, knowledge and dedication. The end result is a highly trained team that will contribute to the detection and removal of mines for many years and for the benefit of communities that have been forced to live next to minefields for decades after the war. The MDD team consists of a trained mine detection dog and handler as they go through the process of integrated training to become one team. They need to build relationship and trust each other in order to enter the risky job of mine detection.

Very often we hear stories from handlers, while they talk about their dog partners with so much love and respect. “I would walk through the minefield after my dog, I trust it so much!” most of them say. However, a handler stays at the safe area at all times and controls the dog’s search technique and behavior, evaluates the dog’s daily motivation and physical condition prior to entering the minefield. These heroic dog search daily around 1000 m2 of land using their nose, with high level of discipline and focus they are trained to maintain. It is common practice that after years of working together, a handler adopts its dog and the dog spends the rest of its life in the family, enjoying their well-deserved retirement. In one lifetime, a very active dog searches on average one million square meters of land and detects hundreds of mines. According to the standard, after detecting an explosive device, the dog sits still and stares, thus indicating the handler the exact spot where it sniffed the explosive odor. The handler marks the spot from the safe lane and only after a deminer enters and confirms that the indication is accurate, the dog gets rewarded. Dogs can work in various and difficult terrain, but respecting the limitations like pointy bushes that may harm the dog during the search. Rests and breaks during the work are also very important. It is crucial that dogs are well taken care of at all times, during the working season and training. Dogs are not robots, they are valuable ‘demining tools” but still living creatures. It is MDDC’s policy to use the dogs while they are healthy, strong and focused, in general while they are most productive.

MDDC is not involved in the breeding of purebred dogs, but procures them from respectable breeders around the world. And this is where the process of professional selection of good and suitable ‘candidates’ to access the training begins. A young dog suitable for training is physically strong, and has a strong desire to search, it is well socialized and not afraid of humans or other dogs. In average young dogs, usually Belgian Shepherds or German Shepherds, start their training at the age of one. Our trainers, first of all, love the dogs and they are the first ones who introduce the dogs to the training.

Mine detection dogs are trained on a daily basis. The process moves gradually from basic to the advanced training phases. During the initial phase, the dogs are trained to connect the odor of the explosives with the rubber toy, and as the training progresses, the dogs are further introduced to all mines and explosive types, including TNT, C-4 and Comp B explosives, first with the concrete blocks, then gradually released to search the boxes (100 square meters each) with mines on the surface as well as buried. Upon detecting the explosive device, dogs are trained to give a proper response, to be focused and well-conditioned, motivated and obedient in order to be ready for the integration course with their handlers. All the dogs are trained to search the minefield using the box search 10 x 10 meters, actively searching in the straight line, back and forth, out to the distance of 8 to 10 meters and to respond using sit and stare position. The dogs need to be well tempered and receptive to the training. During the advanced phase of the training, the dogs are directed to search more and more lanes, including the empty ones without losing the focus. The dogs are trained to receive a reward – a rubber toy to play with as the entire training is based on their desire to get the ball after successful indication. Conditioning of the dogs is a continuous process conducted repeatedly during the entire process and phases of the training, which gives the trainer the opportunity to improve and correct their performance on time, prior to integration phase with their selected handlers. The dogs are conditioned to be able to search through eight to ten boxes with full intensity. Usually within six to eight months the team is ready to be tested and accredited according to the International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) and local mine action standards. According to the standard, every six months the team is tested by a national mine action authority like Mine Action Center and is accredited to be able to enter the minefield.

The bond and friendship established between the man and the dog, besides the high-quality training they both go through, is a guarantee of their success as a team until the dog is eight to nine years old. MDDC was many times recognized around the world for its work. Numerous mine detection dog teams trained by MDDC were awarded as the MDD team of the year by Marshall Legacy Institute from Washington DC, regardless of where the team works, from Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina and most recently the team from Azerbaijan, who will be awarded this November.

Other Mine Action Projects:

Mine Detection Dog Center is involved in many other mine action projects, like demining projects, mine victims assistance and mine risk education. One of the projects we are mostly proud of is our land release projects, namely Mine Free Sarajevo project supported by United States through ITF Enhancing Human Security and in partnership with Marshall Legacy Institute. The Mine Free Sarajevo is an important project aiming to clear the capital city and greater area around Sarajevo of mines and contribute to the safety and security of the local population. In September 2020 we mark the major milestone goal: The City of Sarajevo is mine free after over two decades of mine contamination. The project continues to a wider area of Sarajevo and will be completed by the end of 2020. Clearing the mine contaminated areas is crucial, but equally important is to help thousands of mine survivors in this country, and therefore it is one of our goals to continue supporting mine victims through the assistance projects and providing high quality prosthetic limbs.

Marija Trlin works at the non-governmental organization Mine Detection Dog Center in Bosnia and Herzegovina (MDDC) since 2003. She has a 20 years long experience in mine action.

Her work in area of mine action started in 2000 where she worked at the Donor Relations Department at Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center until 2003. Marija Trlin is a project manager for mine victims assistance and mine risk education projects, is responsible for public and donor relations within MDDC and wrote many mine action related articles published in local and international magazines. She holds a university degree from the faculty of Graphic Arts of the University of Zagreb, Croatia.