Bensie won’t bark. Not when a journalist and photographer enter the kennels late at night. Not when other dogs are barking up a storm. Bensie sits perfectly still, her eyes on us. She’ll bark only on her handler’s command.
The shiny black 10-month-old Labrador is training to be a tracker. Four months from now, when she starts following suspicious scents through forests, army camps and battle zones, India will be grateful for her silence. “Barking alerts the enemy,” says her handler, Selva Kumar, a soldier with the South Bengal Frontier of India’s Border Security Force (BSF). “We’re teaching her to signal us by sitting, facing the source of the scent,” he says. “If she does her job well, she could save the lives of our entire platoon.”
Bensie is part of a six-month training programme at the BSF’s National Training Centre for Dogs (NTCD) in Tekanpur, Madhya Pradesh. The centre, established in 1970 with 20 canines, is now India’s busiest school for dogs in official service.
More than 130 of them – each with an assigned handler – are currently learning how to patrol with the infantry, track a scent, sniff out explosives and narcotics, detect mines, or search and rescue . They’ll eventually join our paramilitary forces, airport security, forest guards and state police.
Tails wagging, tongues hanging out, canines have handled India’s most prestigious and dangerous jobs in recent times. They guard the Prime Minister, whose security detail has four canines. They patrol the forests and mountains with the Central Reserve Police Force, tracking Naxals . The Delhi police recently doubled its Labrador squad to 60. They even marched with their handlers in this year’s Republic Day parade for the first time in 26 years.
“India has realised that dogs are incredibly useful in the fight against terror,” says deputy commandant Dr BN Panchbuddhe, senior veterinary officer in charge of training at the NTCD. His commanding officer, chief veterinary officer GS Nag, calls dogs an invaluable asset. “They hear better, smell better, see better at night, are agile, aggressive and vigilant. But above all, they’re loyal,” he says. “A trained human won’t love you unconditionally, a trained dog will.”
The new guard
Turning a dog into a weapon, is no picnic.
At the NTCD, training starts early. Six-month-old pups, bred at the centre or brought in from other departments, are assigned a handler and ‘married up’. For 21 days, dog and handler live together, bonding.
NTCD instructor, head constable Sachitanand Singh, likens it to an arranged-marriage couple getting to know each other. “Many handlers have never had a dog, the pups have never had a master. They start out not knowing anything but develop a taal-mel,” Singh says.
The pups learn to heed the hand that feeds, grooms and plays with them. The men learn a deeper lesson — their yipping, nipping, drooling companion is equal parts friend, fan, colleague, specialist and responsibility. “The biggest lesson they learn is that dogs are not machines,” says assistant commandant Dr Rajan Gajre, a surgical veterinarian. “There’s no key to turn to make them work. Dogs don’t understand duty; they respond to love and patience.”
Close to 100 staffers then help condition that love and patience into obedience. Over six months, handlers study canine health and behaviour and learn to get their dogs to ‘salute’ (bow with their jaw to the ground), bust ever-smaller traces of contraband, dig out explosives, be wary of strangers, and, as with Bensie, communicate effectively.
Calls of “Baitho!”, “Thaam!” and “Shabaash!” (Sit, Stay and Fantastic) echo at morning and evening sessions. Mealtimes are chances to test if a hungry dog is still dutiful.
And just about any time is good for a spot of grooming — nose-to-tail body rubs, ear- and paw-cleaning, and a vigorous coat-brushing. Caesar, a 14-month-old spaniel training for the security detail of the West Bengal chief minister, loves getting groomed. “He takes longer than short-haired dogs,” admits handler Gautam Chakravarti. “But we both enjoy ourselves!”
Rookies fare better than pet owners, says Nag: “Experience hampers training. It brings overconfidence and less dedication. I’m mighty happy to train a raw hand.”
By the end of training, man and dog are one unit. Neither functions without the other. Dogs reject meals from assistants when handlers go on leave, and curl up in their handler’s lap when ill. Handlers are similarly smitten. “If there’s some reading to do after dinner, it’s not unusual for handlers to come to the kennels and work in peace with the dog by their side,” says Dr Panchbuddhe. “Many drop in at night to check if their dog is OKs. Some are out playing fetch at 4.30 am even if PT doesn’t start until an hour later.”
Selva Kumar, who’s been bunking down in the kennels for 11 weeks to help Bensie adjust, says living with the dog is not a comedown but a matter of pride. “They are serving the nation at our command,” he says. His family was apprehensive of his training at first, fearing bites and attacks. “But when my wife at home sees the pictures I WhatsApp her, all she says is ‘Bensie is so cute’.” Kumar is now planning to adopt a dog at home too.
Panchbuddhe finds that Alsatians make excellent trackers, Dobermans detect narcotics best and Labradors are good for sniffing out explosives, VIP details and infantry patrolling. A new breed is also making news. The Belgian Malinois, a quieter, hardier, more compact German Shepherd lookalike, is becoming popular for wildlife security and Maoist zones. But breed is a secondary concern. “Without dedicated care , your dog is a weapon that won’t fire,” Panchbuddhe says.
Biplav Kumar Rai, a forest guard at West Bengal’s Jaldapara sanctuary, and his Alsatian, Rani, completed training at the centre in October. “I was nervous about how she’d perform in the real world,” Rai says. He needn’t have worried. Rani hates strangers but is possessive of him. In a drill, she retrieved buried tiger teeth and located a tiger skin in a home in minutes. She even sniffed out the ‘thief’ from among 200 suspects. “I couldn’t do this job without her,” Rai says. “I lose my appetite when she’s sick. She’s female, but I call her ‘beta’ (son).”
Beyond the field
A service dog receives a pension and puts in a decade of work before retirement. Trackers give out early — their job calls for more physical activity than, say, sniffing airport luggage.
What happens next varies. Military animals have special shelters, many state police departments let civilians adopt old dogs. All animals, however, find it hard to adjust.
Fizza Shah, the animal activist who adopted Mumbai police dogs Max, Sultan, Tiger and Caesar, and housed them on her Virar farm last year, says they go “from day to night”. Their energy already dropping, they’re put into an unfamiliar world, a new routine, new faces and separation from the human who had been their whole world.
“They’d been treated well in their jobs but everything stopped at retirement,” she says. “These heroes served us during the 2008 terror arracks and I wanted to serve them in return.” Adoption meant three months of paperwork and medical bills, but she didn’t mind. “Service dogs don’t get holidays. They went mad being set free in grass after so long. They rolled in it and chased butterflies. Giving them a dignified retirement was the golden era of my farm.”
Shah was particularly moved by how much the handlers were still connected to them. “Handlers have no authority or capacity to care for dogs after retirement, but when Caesar was in hospital, his handler Santosh Bhogle would visit him, talk to him, groom him,” she says.
Caesar survived the longest. He died in October, with the weeping policemen at his military-style funeral. The graves of all four dogs stand under the farm’s banyan tree.
Watch them roll, play, heel and train here