April 2014
#Military , 1477 Views
Wag the Dogs

Author: Payal Khandelwal
Photographs: Sharbendu De

A look inside the training ground for our nation’s four-legged soldiers.

We’re sitting atop a rocky outcrop, overlooking a forest clearing. It is a cloudy evening in Gwalior as we watch Flame, a German Shepherd, walk cautiously and attentively alongside his handler, Sitaram Meena.

Flame approaches the edge of the thick jungle, where two men are concealed underneath the natural cover. Five minutes later, after diligent sniffing and intense observation, Flame breaks his silence, having located the two men. He knows he’s cracked it, looking eagerly to Sitaram for acknowledgement of his triumph.

Flame is in training at the National Training Centre for Dogs (NTCD), a Government of India institute under the Border Security Force (BSF). As Sitaram pats him, the unit’s Assistant Commandant, Dr Shankar, challenges Sitaram to push Flame harder in these mock drills. Today, Flame and Sitaram’s test is just a harmless simulation. Soon, they actually might face a lethal encounter at the areas affected by the armed proponents of Maoist struggle in India.

The first recorded use of dogs as part of a war campaign dates back to the Babylonian Hammurabi, who died more than 2,000 years ago. Horses, camels, dogs, pigeons, dolphins, rats, and other animals have been part of many war histories as official soldiers. Dogs are now also required to maintain a huge number of local vigils. In India, the fierce and sharp force works incessantly for our protection from a vast array of threats. Armed with canine superpowers including a wide angle of vision, heightened hearing, and an astounding olfactory acuity, they are a force to be reckoned with.

While earlier, outside of combat, they were mainly deployed at significant public monuments, the presence of canines in service of the law is now near ubiquitous. The frightening regularity of local bomb blasts have given law enforcement all the justification they require to rapidly expand this seemingly omnipresent canine presence.

With an increase in state canine surveillance, demand for NTCD training has skyrocketed. Since 1979, the Centre has been responsible for the training of the dogs and handlers of the BSF, various arms of the central police, state police forces, and other law enforcement agencies both in India and abroad.

Life at the centre stubbornly begins at 5am, with an intensive regime of feeding, grooming, exercise, and – of course – training. Typically, one instructor works with five dog and handler pairs at a time.

The pairing or ‘marrying up’ process, through which dogs bond with their handlers, takes place during a 15 day stay in a quarantine facility near the NTCD campus. During this time, the handler and the canine will spend nearly the entire day together, acclimating to one another’s routines, actions, and foibles. It also provides a period to train the dog on basic commands and etiquette. Any puppy who is too aggressive or not sufficiently healthy is eliminated from the programme at this stage.

Each dog is trained for a different and specific purpose including tracking, search and rescue, guarding, and detection of narcotics and explosives. At the demo show, we observe the techniques being deployed for different types of training. In a detection demonstration, Meera, a resolute brown lab, is waiting patiently with her eyes fixated onto the five uniformed men standing in a row. One of these men is hiding a sample of RDX explosive in his pocket.

Reacting to the voice instruction of her handler, Meera starts walking up to each one of them, stretching herself like an elastic band to sniff them with precision. She stops on the fourth man in the line for slightly longer than usual and then without making any noise, sits next to him for about 15-20 seconds. Then she gets up and sniffs the last man. She repeats the whole process and sits next to the fourth man again, quietly, with a more pronounced confidence this time. The acuity is mind-blowing. She is greeted with the applause she deserves.

Unlike the explosives search, where silence is a safety technique, the dogs are allowed to go as dissonant as possible (barking and mouthing, to be eventually controlled via command) when it comes to narcotics tracking.

Only fully trained dogs are used for the show. This demonstration squad includes seven year old gold medallist Labrador, Basanti, who has about three years of employment left. She is the oldest member of this family and has been instrumental in many narcotics cases. Basanti’s old trainer Poolchand is now part of a battalion and Bhagat Singh, the in-charge of the demo squad, doubles up as her handler.

Back at the training ground, Dr Shankar, with his hawk-like vision, tries to devour all the activities that go on simultaneously. We ask him what is it that keeps him on the job. It is thrilling, he tells us, to prepare the dogs and handlers for competition and work assignments. He pulls out his phone from his pocket to show us a newsclipping of a dog and handler duo that emerged victorious from an explosive tracking case. What are the challenges of the job? Juggling too many priorities and putting out occasional fires, like the spread of viral diseases amongst the dogs.

He points out towards a dog and handler outside the designated training ground, who seem to be on a disheartened stroll, a sharp contrast to the vigorous activities going on in their surroundings. The handler has injured his lower back, Dr Shankar says, and thus the dog can’t be trained either, unless they get a reliever. The secret to success lies in strong bonds between dogs and handlers and in how the handler makes use of the dog as his ‘weapon’ in the field of combat.

On this stage, things seem technical and perfunctory with a trail of instructions, punishments, and rewards by the handlers, and their compliant obeisance by the dogs. But the at times brusque sequence of command and action belie the unique personal relationship of each dog with her handler. The stories about these relationships are scattered all over the NTCD campus. There is a deep paternal instinct for the dogs, which is common amongst most handlers, but is rarely displayed off of the NTCD grounds. When displayed, it is a gorgeous contrast to ultra-machismo more often found among our police and armed forces.

Here are three of those stories. About relationships, about love, about duty, and work:

Sanju and Gajendra

Labrador Retriever Sanju and his handler Gajendra Singh have been together for two years now. Sanju is a demo dog, which means he performs mock drills and showcases his talent in front of an audience. Gajendra’s fascination for being a handler started was he was in the UP police and, watching his fellow officers who worked with canines, was curious to see if he could make a dog obey.

Gajendra was earlier paired with a female dog named Mala who died in his arms, the victim of a heart attack. The moment he mentions Mala, his official self restraint crumbles. There is an equal amount of fondness and pain in his memories, and he recalls the day when there was a snake right in front of Mala and he sprang forth to rescue her. He feels that Mala became more obedient and loving towards him from that day on. It was her unspoken gratitude.

With Sanju, he feels they are still growing together. He says that if he has to go for a couple of months’ leave, then it takes some effort and a few days to get back to the old chemistry when they are reunited. When asked if his family gets to interact with Sanju, he says that the families are allowed to come during the demo shows. His officerly restraint back in place, he says that that getting involved with family can be a source of distraction for the dog. He won’t allow it. Just a few days back though, when his two daughters insisted that he put Sanju on the phone, he had to oblige. Sanju barked his hello and the girls were content.

Pranoy and Penny

Outside the NTCD campus – in a move entirely appropriate to Delhi – female dogs in heat are kept in a purdah of sorts so they don’t ‘distract’ the male dogs at work. Here we meet Pranoy Roy from the Kolkata Police. Pranoy has spent eight months in the training with his German Shepherd, Athena. Athena’s pet name is Penny; training names need to be shorter so instructions can be quickly tossed off.

In the first few months of training, Pranoy was worried sick as Penny wasn’t responding to his instructions. One day he broke down and cried in front of the dog. Miraculously, he says, Penny started improving dramatically ever since. Now Penny is the only one in the world who can find out in an instant if he is in a bad mood.,“She can face read me,” insists Pranoy.

He admits that sometimes Penny seems overdependent. She only responds to his command and lets no one but Pranoy feed her. This can lead to complications. When Penny was hospitalised for tick fever, she refused to sleep on her bed in the vet hospital where both the handler and dog have to stay together. Pranoy had no choice but to allow the sick dog to sleep right next to him.

Pranoy has a wife and a ten month old child at home. But for him, Penny is his second child. He doesn’t mind being away from his first one for some time.

Pradeep and Begam

Pradeep Kumar Pandey openly professes his love for Begam, a female Alsatian who has been paired with him for five years. Begam was barely two months old when Pradeep first met her. She is now stands devotedly next to Pradeep as he mentions how she can recognise the sound of his bike not only from far away but also amongst the cacophonous multitude of different motorcycle engines.

Pradeep proudly states that while his own children have become rebellious with age, Begam’s devotion, loyalty and obedience only gets stronger with time. Does he ever think about him being transferred or Begam being out of work after about five years? He tries hard to remain nonchalant, and admits that “she will be very unhappy if we are not together.”

And thankfully, about a few minutes before the end of this conversation, Pradeep half-jokingly mentions how Begam threatens to chomp off the hand of anyone trying to shake Pradeep’s hand if – as she often does – she perceives it as a threat. We stick to a verbal thank you and goodbye. Begam, with her ears still erect, wags her tail.