Like most young dogs, Vivi, a 3-year-old Dutch shepherd, loves to play. Her favorite game is sniffing out explosive devices, which is great for the people of Iraq. She is an improvised explosive detection dog working with Janus Global Operations, a partner of the U.S. government, to clear Iraq of the dangerous devices that ISIS left in its retreat.
Vivi was just a year old in September 2016 when she and her handler left intensive training in Alabama to join the United States’ de-mining efforts in Ramadi, Iraq. They joined a small team of four handlers and their dogs: Aron, Igor, Kora and Rex.
The dogs and their handlers are stationed in Ramadi and Mosul, helping the U.S. and Iraqi mine-detection teams locate and remove thousands of explosive devices and components, as part of a U.S. State Department–funded program. ISIS strategically hid explosives in locations where civilians may accidentally detonate them.
“The advantage that the dogs have over us as humans is that they can smell what we can’t see and can go into spaces where we don’t fit,” says a handler who for safety reasons we are not identifying by name. “Most of the sites where we work are just piles of rubble and that is where the dogs come in handy.”
The dogs are trained to detect 15 different explosive materials, like ammonium nitrate, using soil samples from Iraq, so they are on the scent as soon as they arrive in the country. To search a city street by hand would take hours or even days, but if there is a light breeze blowing, a dog can search it in minutes, the handlers say.
After the dogs are through, the premises are declared safe and people can begin using the facilities again. So far, the University of Mosul has been cleared and classes are in session. Some water-purifying plants, movie theaters and government buildings are safe for use too.
The teams have made a lot of progress in the past year. The handler and Vivi are currently working 40 miles from the Syrian border in Tal Afar, the last ISIS stronghold after Mosul. But even at a rate of 172 explosives a day, it will take years to clear all the explosive devices.
The dogs are trained like any dog learning how to play fetch: they are given a goal to seek out and rewarded them with praise afterward. The same procedure is followed whether the dogs are in training or searching a hospital for explosive devices.
Iraqis have come to trust the search teams and their dogs. Occasionally, someone will ask a team to search their backyard for suspected mortars. “People here are really glad when we pitch up at a school or wherever we work, because they just want to go back to their normal lives,” the handler says.