For over 20 years, Handicap International has been implementing humanitarian mine clearance actions in countries contaminated by antipersonnel mines, notably in Mozambique. The organisation began its activities in the country in 1986, with an emergency intervention in the context of the civil war (setting up orthopaedic workshops and physiotherapy services). The first mine clearance operations were launched in 1998. Implemented by a range of stakeholders (NGOs, government etc.) the work to clear the country of mines is still underway today. In order to accomplish this very delicate task, Handicap International works with mine detection dogs, whose extraordinary sense of smell means they are capable of detecting the odour of explosives.
For over ten years, a pack of German shepherds have accompanied the association as part of its mine clearance programme in Mozambique. There are several dog / handler pairings working to clear landmines. The dogs are an integral part of the demining process, the effectiveness of which depends entirely on the synergy between man, animal and machine. “Dogs are very fast and cover large areas. It is difficult to compare dogs to machines because they are in fact complementary. They do a different job and when you combine the work of dogs with the work of machines, the results are excellent,” explains Norberto, Coordinator of the team of Mine Detection Dog Handlers.
Practically speaking, the machines are used first of all to clear vegetation, and then the dogs are sent in. Unlike metal detectors which detect both mines and other inoffensive metal objects, the dogs’ very acute sense of smell means they stop and sit when they detect the slightest trace of the odour of explosives. Their handler then tags the zone and calls in a manual deminer to inspect the area and identify the object. At this point, the deminer can enter the secure area, carefully examine each square centimetre of the area identified by the dog, and neutralise the explosive device it contains.
Day in, day out, these dogs help save lives. The dog and their handler form a close-knit unit. They learn to trust each other, allowing them to work safely and for the dog to take pleasure in carrying out its mission. “We play a lot with the dogs, to develop our complicity with them”, says Norberto.
German shepherds are the best breed for this type of field mission: “They are extremely obedient and easy to train. They concentrate on the task in hand and are easy to understand. The dog handler must however be extremely alert to what their companion is telling them. If the dog is getting tired, it is important to stop because they are no longer capable of detecting mines,” explains Norberto. One dog handler will often work with two German shepherds to complete a mine clearance session. The safety rules are followed to the letter to ensure that neither the dog nor their handler are put in danger.
The dogs are first selected based on their mature, intelligent and obedient behaviour, they are then trained for six to nine months in the detection of explosives. They then continue to be trained throughout their career to ensure maximum effectiveness. They genuinely enjoy carrying out these demining activities. Looking for and finding a hidden or thrown object is natural behaviour for dogs. A day without finding a mine is extremely frustrating for them! That is why the dogs participate in regular training sessions to locate dummy mines, an activity that they find both satisfying and encouraging.
This mine clearance method has an excellent track record in Mozambique. Despite being one of the most contaminated countries in the world, it is set to be free of landmines by 2014, as per the commitment made by the State on signing the Ottawa Treaty. Thanks to this system, over 2 million square metres of land have been decontaminated by Handicap International since 1998. With the support of Handicap International these German shepherds have become genuine lifesavers, allowing the people of Mozambique to reclaim their land and live a life free from the threat of landmines.
Founded in 1982, Handicap International is an independent international aid organisation working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster. Working alongside disabled and vulnerable people, our action and testimony are focused on responding to their essential needs and improving their living conditions. The organisation has historically been at the forefront of the fight to eliminate antipersonnel landmines and provide victim assistance, a stance for which it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Handicap International is one of the founding members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which resulted in the signing of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, an international convention banning antipersonnel landmines.