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Smart-Nosed Canines Sniff Out ‘Killers’

Maja, Mandy and Lyongambol at a dog kennel in Kampong Chhnang province. They are bomb-sniffing dogs for the CambodianMineActionCenter, able to find landmines and unexploded ordnance.

While the typical picture of a deminer is one of a human, crouched low, quietly prodding in search of mines, dogs like these are in fact responsible for the clearance of 30 percent of the some 1 million mines and ordnances found by CMAC.

CMAC Director Khim Sophoan says these dogs work just as much as the 2,000 other deminers on staff, their colleagues.

“These dogs are even more effective in locating landmines than mine detectors because they sniff for TNT only,” he says.

TNT is a substance used in landmines and other explosives, a deadly remnant of Cambodia’s civil wars, killing hundreds of people each year. CMAC estimates these “hidden killers” have killed or injured more than 60,000 Cambodians since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

An estimated 4 million to 6 million mines and explosives are still scattered across the country.

These bomb-sniffing dogs, mostly German Shepherds brought in from Germany, Swedenand Bosnia, are helping reduce the numbers.

Each dog takes eight to 10 months to train. Handler Heang Sombo, who has worked with such dogs for more than a decade, says this is not easy.

“It is like we are training our kids to say ‘mom’ or ‘dad,’” he says. “We train them to sit, to listen, and to obey us. Then we train them to smell TNT.”

Making the task harder is the dogs’ language: they don’t speak Khmer.

“When we tell them to sniff, we say in Swedish, ‘lear ta,’” he says. “In Bosnian, we say ‘search,’ the same as in English.”

A dog’s sense of smell is about 40 times better than a human. When these dogs smell TNT, they sit down, two meters away from the source.

An untrained bomb-sniffing dog can cost $4,000, and costs can reach $30,000 for a fully trained canine. Cambodiaspends about $1 million a year on the care and training of its 84 dogs.

So far, 10 dogs have aged beyond usefulness in the mine fields.

Sao Chandara, another dog trainer, says when these dogs get old, their ability to sniff mines is reduced.

“So they have to be retired, like humans,” he says. Some will be euthanized.

“We don’t allow these dogs to be taken outside, because before they retire they work like us,” he says. “So we would rather put them to sleep.”

In March, Cambodiabred 10 puppies to replace their parents, Bosnian German Shephards. However, seven of them died of disease.