Usko the German Shepherd stands alert, waiting for his handler Norberto’s command as they face a narrow strip of land marked off by bright tape. It looks like an ordinary piece of land—a grassy patch ready for use as a garden or a children’s play area.
But in Mozambique, where countless landmines were laid over decades of war, a seemingly safe piece of land cannot always be trusted. This area is a suspected mine field, threatening any who enter.
Norberto, a deminer for Handicap International, signals for Usko to move forward. Usko sniffs the ground, moving forward carefully, and then freezes. His nose detects the scent of deadly explosives. Norberto calmly orders his canine partner to back away from the scent.
Usko rests for a moment as the human deminers go to work, cautiously inspecting for the landmine they will disable and remove. Once it is unearthed, Usko will return to confirm that nothing was missed. Then, Norberto and Usko will move on to the next patch of marked land, slowly progressing until the entire area is cleared of landmines.
First launching a demining program in Mozambique in 1998, Handicap International teams cleared 3.7 million square meters of land in 2012 alone. Specially trained explosive-detection dogs have been used by the organization for the last ten years.
The dog demining teams have allowed Handicap International to clear five times more land than using human deminers alone. Working with a human partner, dogs like Usko save lives and prevent future injuries from undiscovered landmines. The dogs and their handlers have absolute confidence in each other. “We constantly train and play together to cement the bond between us,” says Norberto.
The dogs, all German or Belgian shepherds, are selected for their intelligence and obedience and receive nine months of specialized training before going to work. Notably, no demining dog in Mozambique has ever been injured or missed a mine in its path thanks to Handicap International’s stringent safety procedures.
Norberto explains that the dogs seem to take pleasure in finding landmines. If a day goes by without any discoveries, the deminers hide dummy mines for the dogs to find, which gives them a feeling of accomplishment.
Once cleared, the land is able to be returned to community members, who no longer fear death or serious injury as a result of a landmine explosion. The land can be farmed, homes and schools can be rebuilt, and the community can focus on development rather than pure survival. Thanks to the work of deminers like Norberto and Usko, Handicap International and its partners are on track to have cleared all minefields in Mozambique by 2014.
Did you know? It only costs $70 to equip a dog-demining team with the protective gear they need to safely clear landmines. Help protect teams like Norberto and Usko by making a donation now!