Jonathan brings Katja, an 11-year-old female Belgian Shepherd, before the training area. His gestures are very precise. Pausing in front of the barrier tape, a movement of his arms tells the dog to get ready... Then Jonathan gives the command to begin. Katja carefully sniffs the rectangular patch of land of around 20 square meters. She is one of the two explosive detection dogs in the Handicap International demining team in Casamance.
Jonathan never takes his eyes off her: ‘It is really important that Katja checks the test area each morning before going to the area to be cleared of mines,’ he explains. This way I can check her physical condition, concentration and whether there are any external factors interfering, like wind or noise in the distance…’
Explosive detection dogs are used because of their ability to identify explosive devices in soil that is also polluted by other pieces of metal, to locate types of mines that are not found by metal detectors and their ability to cover large areas quickly. They prepare that area before manual clearance takes place.
Jonathan was 20 years old when he started working as a mine clearer: ‘I was looking for challenging humanitarian work, where you work hard and help others.’ In 2007, after clearing mines for four years by hand, he received training in how to become a mine detection dog handler. ‘I like dogs. We have always had them in my family. Recently, I bought a puppy for my three children. They are all thrilled. This gave me the opportunity to combine two things I love: clearing mines and being with dogs. Katja and Rex are like a second family for me when I am away from my own family.’
‘My relationship with the dogs is somewhat close, but it has to remain professional,’ he adds. ‘They are not pets. That’s why I don’t let them get used to entering the house. If the relationship were to become too casual, I would risk losing my authority. Discipline when working would suffer, as would their concentration and our cooperation.’
Jonathan joined the Handicap International demining team in Senegal, which has helped clear mines from the areas around several villages in Casamance, totalling 55,000 square meters, improving the lives of 60,000 villagers. Before this mission, he had already worked for the association in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013.