ROUMIEH, Lebanon: Officer Boston searched energetically under the white car, scaling the tiny crevices where drugs or explosives are often hidden. He circled to the back of the car and stuck his face high under the rear bumper. Here, after finding the explosives, Boston sat down, looked over to his partner, and began panting. Boston, a Belgian shepherd in the ISF’s K9, had successfully completed a drill.
“He smells it then he sits in front of it. That’s when the trainer knows that the last place the dog’s nose was is the location of the explosive,” said Captain Eddy al-Ghrayeb, head of the ISF’s K9 Bureau. “After that, the explosives expert intervenes.”
The ISF’s K9 division serves as a backup unit when the primary police force is searching for drugs, explosives or missing people.
Three breeds comprise the majority of the division: Labradors, German Shepherds, and Belgian Shepherds that are imported from breeders in France.
According to Ghrayeb, American and Chinese law enforcement agencies also import their police dogs from France.
Ghrayeb, who joined the ISF in 2004 and the K9 unit in 2005, travels to France once a year where he picks up a handful of dogs to return and train for the Lebanese police.
A French trainer chooses around 100 dogs from a pool of 200. From there, Ghrayeb spends about a half an hour with each dog and whittles down the pool until he’s found around 10 to 15 dogs that he brings back to Lebanon.
“I do both psychological and work tests, which means I make the dog work and test his personality,” Ghrayeb said, sitting in his office at Roumieh prison, north of Beirut. “I know that the dog and his trainer will be in stressful situations.”
The ideal dog is young – older than eight months but younger than two years.
Like people, each dog has its own personality, strengths and weaknesses, Ghrayeb said. Some are hard workers while others might not be as driven.
The ISF trainer’s job is to find a position that best fits the dog’s strengths and personality.
“Labradors and German Shepherds are very good dogs, but they have trouble enduring the high temperature. In Lebanon, during summer the temperature reaches sometimes 40?C and because we work under the sun ... we can’t tell the dog to wait until the sun sets and the temperature goes down. We have to work in this tough condition. So we have found that the [dog] breed that doesn’t get very bothered is the Malinois [Belgian Shepherd].”
Labradors, however, are the dog of choice for operations or demonstrations at schools because they are less intimidating.
The personality of each individual dog also comes into play.
Some dogs are better suited for the airport, where they sniff out drugs, while others monitor cars and other areas for explosives.
Some perform tracking duty – chasing the scent of criminals on the run. There is also the new search-and-rescue program, where dogs search for missing people – an example being seeking out people hidden under wreckage following an explosion.
“Either he has it from birth or he doesn’t,” Ghrayeb said.
The dogs reside in Roumieh and are paired up with police officers. When the dogs hit 9 years old they are at retirement age and often live out the rest of their lives as civilian dogs at their partner’s family home, Ghrayeb said.
In fact, the ISF officer said the bond between the dog and partner grows to quite deep levels. “You know, the dog builds a relationship with his trainer and they become a team.”
“The dog gets affected by his owner’s feelings through facial expressions and heartbeats. The dog knows if his trainer’s blood pressure is high or low. So, if the handler is under stress the dog will be under stress. That’s why we want dogs that can bear the stress and perform at a certain level.”
The training takes four to five months in all before a team is formed. “We also choose elite dogs that are not afraid of gunfire and have a good ability to attack criminals,” Ghrayeb said.
The captain also squashed rumors that drug dogs may get a taste or even overdose on products during their careers.
“It’s a myth that dogs that look for drugs actually consume them,” Ghrayeb said.
“[Think of it this way], do dogs who look for explosives consume them? We let the dog smell but the material does not reach the dog’s nose. The drug’s powder stays 30 to 40 centimeters away from the dog’s face, and the dog only smells the particles of the drugs from the air and doesn’t consume the powder itself.
“We prevent our dogs from touching this substance, because it’s poisonous and it kills the dogs.”
To date, Ghrayeb said no dogs have been martyred in the line of duty. “We care about protecting the dogs and their health ... It never happened that a dog died on a mission or during work, not even from explosions.”
After Officer Boston discovered the explosives, his partner tossed him a toy and ran over to praise him.
The dog broke his sitting pose and jumped around happily, wagging his tail excitedly and gnawing on the toy. Just another day on the job for Officer Boston.