When it comes to sensing danger, the Belgian Malinois breed of dogs is the best in the business, used by police, guards and the military to keep airports, public events and even the White House safe.
These dogs play a critical role in ridding formerly war-torn countries of the legacy of land mines and unexploded ordnance left for years or even decades after conflicts have ended.
More than 1,200 people were killed and 2,400 injured in 2014 by explosives triggered by children at play, farmers in their fields and other innocent people.
That’s where Alvin comes in. He detects mines in the Indian Ocean nation of Sri Lanka. With their acute sense of smell, Belgian Malinois like Alvin learn to locate the scent of explosives and sit still, safely away from the land mine, to alert the handler.
Alvin is “the world’s best dog,” says Perry Baltimore III, president of the Marshall Legacy Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that stages an annual competition to select the best mine-detection dog. It also salutes a land mine survivor and teacher of the year.
The Sri Lankan team was honored in Washington at the State Department, the biggest funder of mine-clearing operations globally. Larisa Jahić, a teacher from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Labibah Abdo Saif, a land mine survivor from Yemen, received laurels for their work educating people about the dangers.
Lance Corporal G.N.W.M Nawarathne and Alvin have teamed since 2011, helping clear land strewn with mines in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Another Sri Lankan handler and a Belgian Malinois named Spartacus took home the same honor in 2012. “That was my motivation to push Alvin and get the most out of him,” the corporal says.
The breed’s endurance and keen interest make them a perfect fit, says Nawarathne. When not clearing mines, dogs undergo rigorous physical training and practice daily. When his handler is away, Alvin gets the day off too.
Actually, all dozen dogs in Sri Lanka are “very capable and worthy,” says Brigadier General Amith Seneviratne. “The only difference is the handler. The handler must be perfect.”
Dogs are bought from breeders in Europe and trained in Texas or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Private donors pay for the training. (Alvin’s donors gave him a second name, Madjesty.)
All that training has paid off. “I’m proud to say we’ve given 218 dogs to a dozen countries and not a single dog or handler has been hurt,” Baltimore says.
April 4 is International Mine Awareness Day.
A version of this story originally ran on November 2, 2016.