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Sniffer dogs turn into Valley samaritans

Sopore, Jan. 21 (Reuters): T.K. Raju punches the air with his fist after a dog sniffs out a powerful bomb planted by militants in Kashmir.

Raju, a dog handler with the security forces, gets a pat on the back from his boss and Rekha, the Labrador, grabs a biscuit after a three-hour search for bombs on a freezing morning.

“It is worth the trouble when you detect bombs and mines planted by militants and save human lives,” Raju, 25, said.

But if there are moments of exhilaration, there are also times of pain in the search for bombs in Jammu and Kashmir.

Last month, Bhawana, a black Labrador in the army’s dog squad, and her handler, Shiv Lal, were killed in a landmine explosion on a highway in south Kashmir.

Bhawana and Shiv Lal are among dozens of sniffer dogs and their handlers working along with security forces who have died in Kashmir since the separatist movement took a turn for the worse in the late 1980s.

Hundreds of Labradors and German Shepherds, trained by the army in Meerut, work alongside the security forces in the vigil against militant violence that has claimed 38,000 lives till now.

Officials declined to say how many dogs were employed in counter-insurgency operations.

“Where humans have failed, dogs have excelled in anti-insurgency operations. In Kashmir, every operation is led by a dog and a handler,” said Colonel N.S. Kanwar, commandant of the army’s main veterinary hospital in Srinagar.

“It is the dog and his handler who face militants first. One cannot imagine how many lives these dogs save,” a dog trainer said.

German Shepherds are also used to guard key installations and ammunition depots in Kashmir, and Labradors are used for sniffing out explosives, landmines, tracking militants and in avalanche rescue operations.

“The specially trained Infantry Patrol Dogs have helped tremendously in detecting infiltration across the Line of Control and successfully alerted the troops of militant ambushes,” Kanwar said.

“Rain or snow, cloudy or sunny, these gentle animals sniff hidden bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and make the main roads of Kashmir safe for civilians and the forces,” said Ramesh Thakural, head of a road opening party.

Road-opening parties are part of the security forces and form a vital part of daily life in the state. Traffic begins moving on the main roads only after these groups, led by sniffer dogs and equipped with mine detectors, send an “all clear message” on their radio sets.

Officials say 115 people were killed and 1,059 wounded in explosions in Kashmir last year. Kanwar said the figure would have been much higher but for the dog squad.

“Each year, dogs successfully detect dozens of bombs,” Kanwar said. “We are short of dogs...In a terrain like Kashmir it is impossible to operate without these dogs,” he said, as a senior security officer called in asking for more dogs.

Each dog joins the army’s dog unit at the age of two and retires after 10 years. “It is for a bit of love from his handler and not for power, prestige or religion that these best friends of humans die saving scores of lives,” said Bakhshi Singh, a dog handler.

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