Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It's a dog's world

The four-member dog squad at the Cochin International Airport is on high alert for explosives and other such devices

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, a few months ago, dog handler Solomon Raja gets a call from the Air Traffic Control (ATC) at the Cochin International airport. There is a beeping sound in a luggage hold of the economy class of a Jet Airways flight coming from Mumbai.

When the aircraft lands, it is taken to the isolation wing and the passengers are evacuated. Then Solomon enters the aircraft with Paro, a four-year-old Black Labrador.

"Paro sniffs around the cabin, and indicates to me that there are no explosives, but the beep continues," says Solomon. Later, the bomb disposal squad opens the luggage hold and finds a toy.

"Apparently, it starts beeping when the battery is low," says dog consultant Col. Rajasekharan Nair. "The stewards did not want to question anybody about the sound, as it could create a panic situation.” Hence, only the captain is informed and he promptly relays the message to the ATC at Kochi.

The dog squad, under the supervision of Col. Nair, was established in September, 2007. "In order to have a foolproof security system, explosive detection is an inevitable part of the work," says airport director A.C.K. Nair. "Using dogs is the most effective method."

A more mundane reason is that the airport depends on the Tripunithara-based dog squad of the Kerala Police. "If there is a bomb scare, it takes two hours to get the dogs to the airport," says Muralidharan Nair, senior manager, security. "Nowadays, we are having VIP movements daily. Hence, there is a need to sanitise different areas all the time."

The air-conditioned dog kennel is one side of the airport. There are four dogs – two Black Labradors, Paro and Rambhi, and two Golden Labradors, Charlie and Ivy. Their individual handlers – Solomon Raja, S.S. Bhagat, Baiju Varghese and P.S. Sumesh – work for the Central Industrial Security Force.

Asked why the Labrador breed was chosen, Col. Nair says, "It is intelligent, easy to train and has a calm temperament."

Of the four dogs, Paro and Rambhi were bought, fully trained, from the Army Dog Training School at Meerut at a price of Rs. 1, 26,000 each. The other two were bought as puppies at Rs 15,000 each from Coimbatore and were flown, with its handlers, to the training facility of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police at Chandigarh.

Asked about the work profile, Col. Nair says, "The dogs are trained to detect various types of conventional explosives: RDX, TNT, PETN, plastic explosives, cordite and gun powder.” However, the handlers have to keep making the dogs smell the various types of explosives, because they tend to forget, like human beings.

In the mornings and evenings, the dogs are taken, two at a time, to the airport to sniff at various pieces of luggage. Interestingly, the dogs can only work for 45 minutes at a stretch.

"They get tired because sniffing is a very intense job,” says dog handler Baiju Varghese. “That is why we are building up its stamina." So, in the off-duty hours, the dogs have to walk and jog and run through an obstacle course.

Col. Nair says dogs seldom make mistakes. But sometimes, as it happened during the failed terrorist attack at London’s Heathrow airport last year, you could get past a dog check if you use a new material, like glycerine. "Certain shampoos are now being used by terrorists," he says. "So, we have to train the dogs to identify the new smells."

Asked what advantage dogs have over human beings, in terms of smell, Col. Nair says, "Human beings have 5 million receptor cells in their noses, while dogs have 225million."

In the kennel building, each dog stays in a long, narrow room. It is bare, clean, sound-proofed and the air-conditioner is humming at 23 degrees centigrade.

"Air-conditioning is needed as temperature variations, moisture and dust has to be avoided,” says director Nair. “If it gets too hot, or if the dog hears the sound of airplanes, it gets stressed out and will not be able to work at an optimal level."

But Col. Nair says the dogs are doing a good job. And at first glance, it is clear there is a bond between the handlers and the dogs. "Dogs are almost human in their emotions,” says Sumesh. “If a dog is happy with its handler, it will remain cheerful and work well.”

Asked whether they prefer the company of cheerful dogs to human beings, they all nod and Col. Nair quotes playwright George Bernard Shaw: "A dog is superior to a man in that it has a fair share of man's intelligence, but none of his meanness."

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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