Interview: ‘Mr Wise’, senior military dog handler in Ukraine

Ukraine mine sniffing dog

Many people are not fully aware of who military cynologists are and what important work they do with their four-legged counterparts during military actions, especially in the service departments. Yuliya Strizhkina was fortunate to learn this in detail from a senior staff officer in Ukraine who is directly involved in military actions. For the purpose of the interview, he’ll be called Mr. Wise.

Mr. Wise, please tell, what military cynologists and their four-legged colleagues do and what the peculiarities of their work are.  

Military cynologists, in addition to feeding, training and working with service dogs, must still be able to do all the work that every military person must do: know their country’s laws on when weapons and physical influence can be used in service; when it is possible to use their weapons and be physically prepared, at least to the assessment of “satisfactory”. People who do not receive such an assessment have the opportunity to retake the tests, and if they do not succeed, then they are advised to choose another unit with less workload. They also need to have the basics of medical training and connection (coherence).

In everyday life, our military have theoretical and practical classes every day. It is not so much time spent on exercises with dogs, because first of all you are a military, and then – a cynologist.

 So, when do they develop their practical skills in the specialty then?

Every day, in the time allotted for self-preparation, usually in the afternoon. But of course, every cynologist walks and feeds his dog since morning already.

Nevertheless, once a week the management staff conducts a control session, which checks the quality of training, the amount of work performed, finds out what are the issues that need to be refined, resolved, and so on. Also, once a month there is a control lesson for a month with a test. If the dog has already passed a training course and has a diploma in a particular specialty, then every month it gets credit for its professional and practical training.

“It is especially important in our work that the dog worked not in terms of coercion, but for the sake of receiving a reward and positive emotions from the owner”

In general, the main task of our cynological departments is to use specialists with dogs in everyday service and combat activities.

Performance testing is carried out at the regional level and nationwide. Every six months, practical and tactical skills are tested when using a dog within the region – the best unit or the best pair of the region or garrison is determined. The next step is to test within the country. In general, there is an annual plan, a plan for six months, for a quarter and a month.

Much depends on the type of activity for which the unit will be prepared, as well as the request for specialization in a certain period. If the cynological unit will be used to inspect the premises, especially those that were under fire or after some terrorist acts, then in the near future all basic training will be aimed at this specificity.

In peacetime, there are also events which are not provided by the calendar plan. For example, there is a call that a building in which a trial will take place is mined and there is an inside information that a sabotage is possible. So, a day or two before that, we go there and inspect the premises.

We must always be prepared for any possible use, for example, for searching in the natural environment. There are a lot of tricks and difficulties when the devices themselves are not on the surface, but underground, or when the objects themselves are located in buildings. One level of difficulty is working in non-residential premises, in residential – even more difficult.

If you look from the position of a dog, you can compare its work in a non-residential area with how to watch black and white TV. Why? – Because no one walks there for a long time, does not use any devices, it can be cold or wet, there are various bacteria – so, for a dog’s nose it’s like a black and white TV.

If we go to a building with an active life: a school, a kindergarten (God forbid) or a building of the local administration, where people go to work every day and solve today’s issues, where an equipment, air conditioners or batteries are active – so, there are created the conditions, which complicate or facilitate the work of the dog. For it it`s a color TV. And this applies to its work on detecting weapons, bullets or explosives too.

What is the most difficult part of the job?

When we work with particularly dangerous objects, such as improvised explosive devices, where there is a very high probability of injury to many people. For example, if we need to go into a building and see that the door is open. We know that the bandits hid there and left it, it becomes clear that there may be “surprises” left.

If possible, we use a service dog, which shows by its behavior that there is nothing there. Or on the contrary, there is something, then we check with another dog to be more confident. It also does not guarantee 100% authenticity, because a dog, like a human, is a biological object and can make mistakes.

It is especially important in our work that the dog worked not in terms of coercion, but for the sake of receiving a reward and positive emotions from the owner, I say even so: a dog must be a fan of its work.

Of great importance is the fact that a cynologist himself was not like a robot and did not work only on a book with a consumer attitude, but left his emotions at work, dealt with the joy of each achievement and diligently revealed his dog. Even if it did not reveal itself in one direction – try in another and learn to work with the abilities of his dog.

And if we talk about wartime?

This is a very difficult question. Theoretically, we know that there is an increased risk, that all places need to be inspected repeatedly, that the work of one dog should be checked by another, that it is necessary to check the presence and condition of an alarming suitcase, food, first aid kit and more.

If in peacetime a household mistake will not cost anything, then in the military time – we have to insure ourselves at each point and check twice. Step by step do our job without sudden movements and coordinate each of them with the command.

“The main types of specialties are the search for weapons and bullets, the search for explosives and mine search”

As a rule, a cynologist works in a team consisting of: a dog, another partner with a dog of a similar training profile, as well as specialists of the explosive engineering service.

But it should be understood that during the war it happens so that what was prepared is destroyed, burned or something else, so it is impossible to predict everything. And with the work of the human factor, to be honest, all our skills can be divided by 50% due to stress, the unexpectedness of the situation, the lack of people who died and more.

Do you work with certain breeds of dogs or does the breed not matter?

According to world statistics, the vast majority of work is performed by German Shepherds, Malinois and their first-generation hybrids, in a small percentage – Labrador, Dutch Shepherd and others.

The main types of specialties are the search for weapons and bullets, the search for explosives and mine search. They all have one common thing: the element that dogs are looking for is in weapons, in explosives and in mines. The difference is that if the dog is talented by nature and has a high level of training, it should be attributed to the mine search service.

Some people think: what is so difficult to find a mine in the ground? Believe me, in order to get a basic level of knowledge and skills for the dog in search of weapons and bullets, as well as in search of improvised explosive devices, we spend about three months.

If we talk about the mine search service, then the basic level of training takes about 10 months. I will tell frankly, none of our divisions prepares such dogs because for such preparation it is necessary to have the corresponding material base. Namely – the ability to train with a subject that is six months, a year or three years old.

That is, we took such an explosive device and hid it, and we know where we hid it. But what is needed for this? – To have the appropriate territory with an appropriate protection and defence. After all, the object that we buried, even if it does not explode, because we did not twist something necessary, can be found by someone else, disassembled, one can get a large amount of explosive charge and use for negative purposes.

 Please describe the day of a service dog on the front line in wartime.

Very difficult. It even happened that you were looking for moments to jump out, just to take the dog to the toilet, because all this time you were sitting with it behind some bags in the cold. Such days are divided into medium and high severity. On average, when there is no active shooting and we work with dogs, the schedule consists of rest, feeding and constant work: the dog, depending on air temperature, works on average up to 30 minutes in search and rest at least 20 minutes. If it is hot, the time to use the dog is reduced. If the temperature is 10-15 degrees (Celsius) and there is no strong wind, the dog can work up to 40 minutes. I have heard that, according to NATO standards, work is allowed for up to 50 minutes, but I repeat, it is all quite conditional, because it depends on many factors.

From the outside, it may seem that sitting and waiting for the enemy to appear is not difficult, but believe me, you can sit for an hour, three and half of the day. And the very expectation without changing of a body position throughout this period is a great challenge. Under such working conditions, the dog may simply get tired and refuse to work. This is a living being.

We need to constantly improve everything, think about and calculate possible consequences, test our knowledge in practical experience, look for new options for solving problems, because yesterday it worked, and tomorrow – no more.

How did dogs help you and your comrades in war?

Application of our unit was from the first days of military actions. We were in the center of events in Kyiv. People left en masse, and those who remained in the city were under surveillance. For example, when we met a resident on the streets of the city, we checked him visually and inspected the documents, because there was a lot of information about the presence of sabotage and reconnaissance groups. Also, in the places of our service various unusual items began to appear on roads, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.

“It is important to remember that there were very active hostilities around. The explosions and shock waves were so powerful that the dogs were not ready for it”

For example, someone left a thermos or a bag in the mentioned places. There weren’t any, but they suddenly appeared, so we repeatedly used dogs to examine them. To do this, a cynologist with a dog had to get closer to the object at least 5-7 meters, not talking about half a meter already. The person who left the object could watch from the side, balcony and other nearby places. The work was carried out under the guise of security forces, because when the cynologist worked with the dog, his attention was focused on the object itself, and he did not look to the sides where the enemy’s accomplices could be.

Cars which in the first days of the war were very rare, about one per hour, were also inspected. But if the car appeared, we had to communicate with its passengers and even carefully inspect it.

Speaking of all this, it is important to remember that there were very active hostilities around. The explosions and shock waves were so powerful that the dogs were not ready for it. Despite the fact that during training, when we shoot, they do not even lead by ear, but in such situations, if we let the dogs off the leashes, they could run away and thus get lost. The instinct of self-preservation was gaining such strength that the dogs forgot about everything. Or, on the contrary, they began to press so hard to the feet and were afraid to leave that it was unrealistic to force them do any work.

Dogs also played a very important role in our places of rest, where we could close the eyes for at least a few hours a day to regain physical strength.

The fact is that not everyone had a full set of things, those who managed to grab something had it: someone had a jacket, and someone did not, someone had a sleeping bag, and someone did not. And a couple of times we were transferred to places where there was no light, windows, heating, the wind was blowing and whistling.

Everyone was in terrible tension, it was flying and whistling around, and when it was quiet in the evening, we still shuddered even from the sound of the door through the draft. The first two nights we wound ourselves up so much that could not sleep because we reacted to all these sounds and ran to check. And because dogs hear better than we do, we used them as an indicator.

mine sniffing Patron
Patron was honoured by Ukraine’s President for his mine-sniffing work

This is usually not a dogma, because dogs that work in this way and sit with people in ambush are individual dogs that are selected specifically for this profile and specially trained. We just used the natural features of our dogs. Therefore, the guys who were on duty during the rest of the comrades, each for three hours, sat quietly and watched the dog, if it listens to something or not. If it was interested in something, they tried to find out carefully what attracted its attention.

It was also very cold, so much that we had to cover the dogs themselves. And so that both they and we would not freeze, we put the dogs on our stomachs, hugged them and thus warmed up. Everyone was in the dust, in the dirt, did not take off their shoes or change clothes for weeks, but no one paid attention to that, the main thing was to drink, eat something, not to freeze hands or feet – and that’s what dogs were “warmers”.

And you know, people who found themselves in this situation with us and who treated dogs very differently before (some neutral and some didn’t even like them), forgot about all the moments of hygiene, ugliness and so on and even became a little jealous.

I’d like also to mention another important help from the dogs, when they signaled with their behavior that something could happen now. In particular, this concerned the arrival of missiles. For example, when I slept, my dog came as close as possible and began to breathe very actively in my face, from which I in a half asleep said: go, I’m sleeping. And it passed by on the other side and again actively breathed in my face.

I did not immediately understand it, but then I clearly noticed that in this way it warned me about the explosions. Not all dogs are capable of this. Only those who have a high instinct for self-preservation. At that time, I had two dogs with me, and one of them was doing just that.

 I have heard that there are problems with dogs eating human remains in the occupied territories, is that true?

There were really many dogs in the occupied territories of Kyiv region. My comrades personally have not noticed the direct eating of corpses, but if to answer the question seriously, I can assume that it is possible. There is nothing to hide, when it was the `33-rd year, even people from hunger ate other people.

Therefore, I am sure that with a long period of starvation of dogs (more than 2-3 weeks), such a situation could occur. It was in Bucha and Irpin that the guys I worked with opened their dry rations and spread them directly on the asphalt to feed the hungry animals. And if they saw that the door to the house or apartment was broken, and there was a refrigerator, though sprayed, but there was something left in it from food, they just took it and gave to the animals.

“We work when the territory has already been liberated and we need to clean it up: remove equipment from the road, check the presence of unexploded devices or when the enemy leaves the place and deliberately leaves ‘surprises’.”

There was really horror there. Two of my comrades, not cynologists by the way, were walking in the private sector and past a broken house that was still smoking. There was almost nothing left alive in the area, and suddenly they saw a Staffordshire Terrier tied to a tree. They simply untied it and took it to their parents. It is difficult to imagine how they managed to get it out, but they did. Another friend of mine also saved a dog. All in all, these were very scary things.

What other animal issues do you still have to face on the territories liberated after the occupation?

We work when the territory has already been liberated and we need to clean it up: remove equipment from the road, check the presence of unexploded devices or when the enemy leaves the place and deliberately leaves “surprises”. They do not burn or blow up their equipment, but leave it as a bait, but in fact it is mined. And in order to solve such problems, you need to prepare dogs for demining. And this is the work of cytological departments.

What help may be needed?

For dogs that work in the natural environment, there is a minimum necessary program to be treated at least from ticks, because a dog bitten by a tick loses its ability to work and even with a veterinary care, will recover for at least one week, so we lose resources and time.

“Here you are together, next to each other, but suddenly a shell arrives – and you see only mutilated bodies, which you can’t help anymore”

You are a real senior officer. Was there anything that terrified even you?

What can scare a person the most and make him reconsider the thoughts 360 degrees is the suddenness which is hard to calculate and predict, as well as things that you have not thought about before and for which you are not morally ready.

Here comes the man next to you and suddenly he is gone. He was simply killed and all around continues to fly and whistle. You can no longer help him, because he is no more. The same with dogs. Here you are together, next to each other, but suddenly a shell arrives – and you see only mutilated bodies, which you can`t help anymore.

And when all this happens, there is no time to think, everything is very fast. Only in a few hours or in a half of a day comes the realization of what happened, and you rethink it all.

As a percentage, how many dogs of your special unit were wounded during the war?

From our special unit, thank God, all are unharmed. And from colleagues, what I saw with my own eyes, 20% of dogs were killed.

How have dogs changed in three months of war?

I can tell by my dog. One of them received a micro stroke. There were loud explosions, it was very worried and scared and the result was – a loss of hearing. If I used to walk and could talk to it in whispers before, now during the walk, if it moves 20 meters away from me, I can no longer shout out to it.

Do your service dogs have their own original habits?

If you remember, I’ve already talked about a dog that constantly wakes me up, anticipating danger. So, it has a habit that I haven’t noticed in years.

Lately, I’ve been giving this dog pills to protect against tick bites – and I’m calm. But thus no one canceled the appearance of ticks from the environment. And so, if a tick crawls or bites on my dog, it finds a tick itself, catches it or even pulls it out and puts on the floor, after what begins to hypnotize it. The tick crawls slowly, and it sits and looks at it for a long time, as if at one point.

Seeing my dog like that, I did not immediately understand what was happening and already thought that something had happened to its psyche. Imagine: a dog is sitting and with a look, like a laser, trying to burn the floor. I first noticed this when it was 8 years old. And finally realized that this is a “fight” against ticks!

And so, it takes off the tick, puts it on the floor and hypnotizes it until it crawls on the paw again. Then takes it off once more, puts on the floor and hypnotizes again. Sometimes the dog tries to crush a tick, but those that have not drunk blood yet are very strong, and the distance between the teeth is quite large, so it does not succeed. The dog starts to get angry, saliva releases and drips on the tick, it tries to drown the tick in it, and the tick still crawls, gets on the paw, the dog takes it off again, gets angry – and so this procedure can take half an hour. (Laughs together).

What first will you do with your dogs after the war?

It will depend on the season. My dogs like to run near me when I ride my bicycle to the lake and swim there. Sometimes we go on a forest road, and the dog disappears once, as if it saw something and ran slowly, disappearing from view. In order not to lose it on such walks, I use collars with GPS-navigators, so I know exactly where it is. And often, when I find it, it is already swimming in the lake.

“Nevertheless, I think that the main thing that “hurts their hearts”, same as people’s hearts in our country, is wishing for the end of the war to come as soon as possible”

So, if the season allows, I’ll take my dogs, sit down on a bicycle and go to the lake.

What do you think is the current “heart ache” of Ukrainian service dogs in special units?

From the standpoint of the program of minimum necessary this is food and means of protection against parasites. I already said why. Globally, and the number of dogs is quite large, these are collars with GPS navigators and bulletproof vests for dogs. Of course, the last one can be seen as a necessity with elements of comfort, but its importance is difficult to overestimate.

Nevertheless, I think that the main thing that “hurts their hearts”, same as people’s hearts in our country, is wishing for the end of the war to come as soon as possible, so we can return home, restore peaceful life and build a prosperous Ukraine.

Contacts for those who can help pets from Mariupol and other affected regions of Ukraine:

Interview conducted by: Yuliya Strizhkina
Chief editor: Japanese Spitz SIMBA TSAR ZVEREI
Main image courtesy of ‘Mr. Wise’.


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