“The owners did not want to keep their German shepherd puppy, because he was too lively for the lifestyle of a family expecting a third child. So they offered him to me. The moment I saw Oscar, I knew that he would be the one for me, and the one for this job. And that’s how I got Oscar”, tells the chief inspector Veaceslav Gira, captain of the Moldovan Customs.
Eight months of training at the Ocnita Dog Handling Centre, and now Oscar is one of the 20 sniffer dogs of the Moldovan Customs. Like all other detection dogs he has working hours, lunch breaks and even a salary which is given in dog food. At the age of ten, Oscar can either retire on a pension or continue his duties if he is healthy enough.
On average, dog’s sense of smell is 5,000 times more sensitive than that of human beings. Which explains easily why dogs are used to detect illegal substances. The trained sniffers can detect even the slightest smell of drugs, explosives or weapons. However, this is not only because of the sense of smell they are born with but because of the professional training their go through.
The breed is not relevant – German shepherds, poodles, malinois, Labradors, retrievers and spaniels can all equally well find forbidden substances. What matters most is the dog’s temperament. The playfulness is the key quality for a sniffing dog, so it is tested first. If the puppy likes playing with a toy, fetches it, and tirelessly looks for the hidden toy, it can become a good sniffer. The whole training process is based on a game. Firstly, the dog is trained in the basic obedience skills, where the toy serves as the reward for good performance. Later on the dog gets used to the fact that the toy has its specific smell – the smell of a drug – and learns to find it in various hidden places.
“The smell of marihuana, which was collected a month ago, is different from the smell of marihuana collected a year ago“, explains Mr Popovici, the Head of Ocnita Dog Handling Center of the Customs Service of Moldova. “To be effective, the dog should be able to recognize as many smell variations of illegal drugs as possible.”
However, the dog can perform only if teamed with the handler. It’s the handler who analyzes the risks and leads the dog in its search. It is vital for a good canine team to trust and understand each other. At the end of the day it’s the handler’s responsibility to interpret the dog’s behavior and to recognize even the slightest changes which could give away dog’s interest in the smell.
Reaching understanding and trust are at the heart of canine exercises. Just like the one which took place in mid-October in Ocnita, northern Moldova, on the initiative of EUBAM and Ocnita Dog Handling Center of the Customs Service of Moldova. The two day operational exercise brought together canine teams from the customs services of Moldova, Ukraine and Romania.
“It is a unique event for us, since it’s the first time when all three services meet to share their experience in dog handling and to learn from each other”, says Victor Popovici, the Head of Ocnita Dog Handlers Centre and the main driving force of the event.
“For instance, traditionally when the dog finds something, it signals by scratching. Not only it might be dangerous for the dog, it also might destroy the fingerprints or other microtraces of the trafficker, what significantly complicates further investigation. There is a new method of training the sniffing dogs – to freeze when it detects something. It’s much safer. We will use this technique to train our new puppies”, Mr Popovici continues.
During the operational exercise the canine team from three different countries had a chance to test their skills in detecting drugs, cigarettes and explosives in real life situations such as trains search and vehicles search together with mobile customs units. But what was even more important for the canine teams was the possibility to receive the feedback from their foreign colleagues and to discuss the most effective dog handling technics used by their partner services abroad.