ISLAMABAD: Rocky begins and ends his day by eating imported meat. At night he sleeps in accommodation that costs about Rs2,500 a day. He is gainfully employed at an upscale local hotel and has at least one person keeping an eye on him at all times.
The perks of Rocky’s job may sound quite enticing but, as one of over 100 sniffer dogs deployed throughout the city, he is risking his life daily to keep Islamabad safe.
Most of the sniffer dogs employed in Islamabad are German Shepherds, but there are also Golden Retrievers and Rottweiler’s. They are permanently used at all the entry points to the city, while some are kept at random locations throughout the city. Overall, the Ministry of Interior says it has received requests for over 1,000 sniffer dogs from various departments.
An interior ministry official, who requested anonymity because he was quite critical of the process by which sniffer dogs are imported to the country, said that the vast majority of the dogs are imported from South Korea and China, with a few also from Germany and other Western European countries. The average cost per dog is nearly Rs2 million.
Apart from the imported dogs, there are also some locally-trained sniffer dogs. The vast majority of local sniffer dogs are trained by the Army Dog Centre, which can train a maximum of 400 dogs a year, but these are only for the use of the military. Different military units can also purchase the dogs for about Rs200,000-300,000. Some local security firms also rent out sniffer dogs to the government for about Rs 40,000 a month.
The interior ministry official complained that while a lot of sniffer dogs are being imported, not enough security officials are being sent to South Korea and China to receive training in how to handle the dogs.
He said, “There is no point in having bomb-sniffing dogs if their handlers can’t figure out their reactions.” The official gave the example of the twin bombing at the Fatima Jinnah Hospital in March 2010 where he says it is most likely that the dog detected the second bomb but security officials were unable to decipher the dog’s expressions.
Even though there has been a large increase in the number of sniffer dogs in the last four years, the interior ministry official says that they still occasionally face a shortage, especially during high-risk periods like Ashura and when foreign dignitaries are visiting. On those occasions, the government rents sniffer dogs from private security companies. This too, according to him, exacerbates the issue of untrained handlers since security officials have almost no time to build a bond with the dogs.
Then there is the issue of mortality. The official complained that the sniffer dogs were dying at an alarming rate. The reason for this was explained by Saba Ahmed, a veterinarian in Islamabad.
She said, “Imported sniffer dogs are not used to local conditions. No matter how much you try to recreate their original life, they are not used to this heat.” Ahmed says that sniffer dogs need to be rested after every two hours or their ability to detect bombs may be compromised. The interior ministry official said that dogs are routinely given eight-hour shifts but that this is reduced during summer.
A better solution, says Ahmed, would be to develop sniffer dogs locally. “The government can buy German Shepherds when they are puppies and then breed and train them.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2011.