K - 9 Beyond enemy lines | Sunday Observer

K - 9 Beyond enemy lines

The bond between man and dog is one of the oldest relationships. It is based on trust and understanding. Dogs continue to impress upon us their faithfulness. The Commando Regiment is one place where this beautiful bond of existence manifests itself. The story of these dogs was first brought to my attention by Major Nalin Marasinhe. 
I made my way to Ganemulla, where the 4th Commando Regiment is based to see these magnificent dogs and their unique military skills.  This regiment has 4 duties- VIP Security, Anti - Hostage Rescue, Crisis Management and Kennels. Accompanied by Commanding officer Lt. Colonel Udesha Ratnayake, Lt.Colonel Janaka Samarasekaera, Major Dissanayake and Major Thalagala (Veterinarian) I head towards the massive kennel compound. Upon sensing my approach a stocky German Shepred begins to bark, thereby warning the entire kennel of an ‘outsider’.  
A few steps closer and we are surrounded by an amazing array of dogs: friendly Labradors, defiant Dobermans, alert German Shepherds, stubborn Boxers, adorable Beagles, intelligent Belgian Malinois and dominating Rottweiler’s. I made sure to keep a safe distance from the latter breed. 
A golden retriever was being brushed by her handler. I recognized her as Tisha. She is an adorable dog with a military record. Tisha is the first dog in Sri Lanka to complete a high altitude parachute jump with her former handler Major Siranjeeva (when he was Chief Instructor Para Wing). As I called her name she came near us, and in a touching gesture of friendship and acceptance gently lunged forward and rose on her hind legs to place her large paws on my shoulders. After receiving a head rub Tisha obediently sat down. Tisha is the pride of the commando kennel, as she has toured the island winning the hearts of many children. 
Major Thalagala begins to explain the long and challenging journey of the K-9 unit. The need to use dogs was realized in 1983 during the time of Captain. Chandrawansa (subsequently promoted Major. General), and 6 dogs were donated to the team from Australia. These 6 Labradors were the foundation to the present kennel. This initial dog unit was trained in the detection of explosives. Major Thalagala went on to explain “We begin training when the dogs are 8 weeks old. Our primary training is obedience commands and the dogs soon learn the reward oriented training methods”.
Each breed of dog enables it to excel in a chosen skill. This comes almost naturally to the dog by its intelligence, aptitude, body mass, endurance and temperament. Labradors are trained in sniffing for concealed explosives. German shepherds are suited for tracking and their aggressive visual appeal instills fear. The dog can be given advanced training as an attack dog. The all rounder in the commando kennel is the Belgian Malinois who can adopt to almost every duty. 
The dogs on active duty begin the day at 6 am with a round of PT, running around with their handlers. Grooming begins at 7 a.m. The animals are fed by 8 a.m. on a diet of milk and eggs. This is followed by a one hours rest. Some dogs continue to be subject to advance training. By 5 pm they get their second meal for the day which includes a healthy portion of beef. The dogs of the Commando Regiment continue to help maintain security at vital installations around the country. Training for the Rottweiler guard dog begins at 3am, which shows the dedication of the handlers. The army knows the value of their four legged friends: the dogs have an air conditioned bus to travel.
Yet all is not cozy. The terrain the dogs work in is laden with risk. They have to track through fields and forests. The dogs are trained to work with commando teams on various missions, which include night time operations. A dog and handler when tracking are accompanied by two armed commandos on either flank. 
Snowy is one brave dog, remembered with gratitude. In March 2007 Snowy and his handler Sergeant Sampath were sent on a task to the jungles of Welioya. As the dog was leading the way, a concealed terrorist hurled a grenade. The blast injured Snowy with 15 pieces of metal shrapnel.
Bleeding profusely Snowy remained awake. He was rushed to the Peradeniya Veterinary Hospital and subject to surgery. 8 pieces of shrapnel were removed. After months of treatment Snowy embodied the indomitable will of a commando and made a recovery. He lived for 3 more years before reaching the golden shores of eternal rest. A taxidermist has done a good job in immortalizing this legendary dog. Today Snowy is venerated as a hero and kept in a large glass cubicle.  
During the years of war the dogs worked day and night, making a silent contribution. 
Maale is another canine with a record. On one particular day the terrorists decided to secretly smuggle a haul of explosives in 19 separate vehicles via Muhamalai. The modus operandi was to send small quantities and then collect the full load at a given location. According to Warrant Officer Warnasuriya, the intelligent Springer spaniel detected all 19 vehicles in one day and seized almost 150 kilograms of explosives. 
Training and caring for the dogs is an intense duty. Major Thalagala has to ensure the animals are in peak medical condition and free from tick fever and renal failure. When not engaged in duty the dogs perform at various military shows delighting audiences by performing stunts. After completing their initial commando basic course and earning the coveted maroon beret, those men who love animals are given a chance to volunteer and train as dog handlers. It is a special job as the handler must gel with the dog, earning its trust. It takes about 15 months to train a dog to its full working capacity. Major Alahakoon is the officer in charge of the K-9 unit. He has followed advanced dog handler training in India. He points to 6 Beagle puppies playing in their large cage. These six dogs are to begin their specialized training as cadaver dogs- able to sniff and detect humans under mud, even dead bodies. As the nation improves her response to disaster management the Beagles will be trained to rescue people buried in landslides. 
This is indeed a remarkable help in great danger. In the years gone by the dogs of the regiment have served in UN missions in Lebanon, and continue to serve there bringing honour to our motherland.. The dogs of the Commando Regiment are always primed and ready.