Chest lifted and back arched, Mafia’s handler awaits a command from the young captain leading a marching contingent of army dogs being featured in the Republic Day parade after 26 years.
On the command “at ease”, soldiers are required to raise the left foot and move it neatly to the left, but the handler, Amarinder Kumar, does exactly the opposite. He keeps his left foot in place and moves the other one to the right.
He makes sure that he doesn’t end up hurting Mafia, a two-year-old German Shepherd trained as an assault dog. Military dogs and their handlers develop intense relationships over time, as they go about encountering the same dangers in the combat zone from where only the lucky ones return unscathed.
Soldiers wear shock-absorbing drill boots to prevent injuries but Kumar dons regular army footwear to avoid hurting Mafia, one of the 36 canines who will march down Rajpath on January 26 along with their handlers. The handlers will carry biscuits in their pockets to reward their dogs after the parade.
“Our style of drill is different from regular marching contingents. It requires perfect synchronisation and precision with the dog sometimes playing tug of war with its leash. And the safety of dogs is paramount,” says Captain Rishi Sharma, who has accompanied the canines from an army training facility in Meerut.
Mafia, his buddies Panzer, Dhoom, Romeo, Dodge and Cobbler – all in the first row of the marching squad – and the remaining canines have been rehearsing for the parade for over four months. The squad, a mix of German Shepherds and Black/Golden Labradors, includes eight female canines, spayed for operational roles.
You name a task and the army has a dog for it. The dogs, aged between two and four years, have been trained for specialised tasks such as assault, patrolling, sniffing out explosives and tracking down terrorists.
After they debut at the parade, the canines will be assigned to operational units in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir where their ancestors have been bestowed with awards for exploits on the battlefield.
Decorated dogs – they are eligible for commendation cards by the army chief and top army commanders - are pampered with more goodies to eat and extra rest along with their handlers, the latter being a rare privilege in the army. Their names, collars and unique service numbers are also put up on roll of honour boards at military units.
Each session ends with 45 minutes of grooming to keep up their levels of cleanliness and appearance, and checking for any injuries, says Captain Anurag Hatiboruah, 26, who is leading the marching contingent.
“We make sure they get adequate rest and are fed on time,” he adds.
For Hatiboruah, the parade will be doubly special – he had taken part in it as an NCC cadet eight years ago.