Katja, one of Handicap International’s veteran mine sniffing dogs, still comes to work each day with fresh energy and enthusiasm despite having logged countless hours on the job over her nine-year career. The dog is a Belgian Shepherd, a breed often used by the military and police due their intelligence and acute sense of smell. Born in the Netherlands, Katja was brought to Kenya at six months of age to train as an explosive-detecting dog. Since then, Katja has worked all over Africa, including Kenya, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now Senegal.
She’s been partnered with her handler Jonathan Matambo, and Rex, a German Shepard, for four years. Together, the team now works with Handicap International deminers to clear landmines in Casamance, Senegal.
On the road to the day’s demining site, Katja yips and turns in circles, eager to be let out and get to work. “Katja is very energetic and incredibly skilled,” says Jonathan. “In spite of her age, she will carry on working for many years.”
Deminers who use explosive detection dogs are much faster and more efficient than deminers who only use metal detectors. Dogs can work three times faster than humans. Their actuate sense of smell allows them to pinpoint explosives, even when mines are buried among other metal debris or when mines do not contain metal. Metal detectors cannot do this. When a dog detects a mine, a human deminer manually clears the explosive.
Once at work, the lady doesn’t like to be disturbed. She can be easily distracted. At these times Jonathan must to be vigilant to refocus her attention. But once she gets going, she’s tireless and nothing gets past her. Jonathan works with one dog at a time, with Katja and Rex rotating on and off duty every hour.
At the end of the day, Jonathan rewards Katja and Rex with food, grooming, and play time.
“Katja loves to play,” says Jonathan. “Fetch is her favorite game. She loves the fact that I care for her, brush her, and take her for walks. She whines a bit when I go away, or when she feels I’m not being attentive enough.”
Over the next several months, Jonathan, Katja, Rex, and the rest of Handicap international team are committed to clearing 55,000 square meters of land around three villages. If all go according to plan, by August, tens of thousands of people will be able to reclaim long-abandoned farmland and walk the paths between villages without fear.