Puppies born recently in Cambodia are the first mine-clearing dogs to be bred and born in Southeast Asia. Most Asian dogs are unsuited for de-mining, so fully trained dogs are imported, mostly from Europe. But that could change if Cambodia's new breeding program succeeds, saving time, money and lives. Rory Byrne has this report for VOA from Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia.
These playful brown and white puppies are being trained for a deadly serious purpose. They will sniff out explosives so they can find hidden land mines and other unexploded bombs.
Cambodia is littered with millions of unexploded bombs and mines left over from three decades of conflict. Experts say between four and six million unexploded land mines lurk in the ground here, and they kill or maim over 400 people a year.
The puppies were bred from a pair of Belgian shepherd dogs imported from Bosnia. The parents were chosen because of their eager-to-please temperaments and good genetic history.
Local dogs are not suitable for clearing mines, or breeding mine-clearing dogs. Uk Rotha is a puppy trainer for the Cambodian Mine Action Center.
Rotha says the parents of these puppies are experienced mine-clearing dogs. Cambodian dogs are not looked after as well as foreign dogs - they normally run wild, so, he says, they are not good for breeding specialized dogs like these.
The puppies are isolated from each other most of the time so they build a strong bond with their human trainers. Heang Sambo has been training mine-detection dogs in Cambodia for 10 years.
Sambo explains that good land mine-clearing dogs must listen closely to their handler. They must have a good relationship with their handler because if they love him they will do what they are asked to do. Plus, he says, they need a sensitive nose which comes from good breeding.
The usual way to clear land mines in Cambodia is with metal detectors. But, says Sambo, this method is slow.
He says the difference between a metal detector and a dog is that the dog only smells explosives while the metal detector picks up the sound of anything metal, including rubbish.
If the puppies become successful de-mining dogs there are plans to expand the Cambodian breeding program as quickly as possible. Ngoun Thy is the senior dog instructor at the Cambodian Mine Action Center.
Thy says that importing trained land mine-clearing dogs is very expensive. One dog costs about $30,000, which is too much for a poor country like Cambodia. And, he says, because there are experienced dog trainers here it makes more sense to organize a local breeding program.
A successful breeding program in Cambodia will mean the country can field more dog teams, faster, and more cheaply, and that means more lives saved.