Canines in Defence of Lanka via the SL Air Force

Dishan Joseph, in Daily News, 10 July 2020, where the title runS   SLAF Air Dog Unit: Canine ‘Scentsations’”

For seven decades the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) has strategically guarded our nation’s aerial domain. Whilst most of us understand and recognise the air defence role of the SLAF, they have played an equally important role in ground operations. This covers a wider spectrum of protecting airfields, bases, training schools and air assets. Unnoticed by many, one of the silent stakeholders actively engaged in this protective function are the dog handlers and their robust canines.

To witness their daily work routines we traveled from Air Force Head Quarters to the cantonment-styled base at Katunayake. This massive base has 22 formations of various SLAF branches and regiments. As we drove towards the Air Dog Unit, it was lovely to see some Royal Ceylon Air Force vintage buildings beautifully restored and being occupied.

The sound of barking was audible at the main gate. We met up with the Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Niroshan Kumarasinghe, and three other officers. Rows of kennels were neatly spread out over a large area of grass, with clusters of trees offering shade. The history of dogs being used for duty dates back to the era of the Royal Ceylon Air Force.

Subsequently the SLAF began using two dogs in 1972 at the Air Force Police Station. In 1979, the first batch of airmen were recruited as dog handlers. By 1986, the dogs and handlers were deployed to the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) to engage in explosive detection work. In July 2013, the section was re-designated as Air Dog Unit. Wing Commander Pinnagoda and Group Captain Piyasena were the initial Commanding Officers of the unit.

Wing Commander Kumarasinghe explained, “Over the years we have been able to add different breeds. Today our dogs are of the following breeds – English Spaniel, German Shepherd, Labrador (with Labrador Retrievers), Rottweiler, Cocker Spaniel, Pointer, Doberman, Boxer, Dalmatian, Bull Mastiff, Rhodesian Ridgeback and Belgian Milionis. According to the intelligence and physical endurance of the different breeds, we have trained them as guard dogs, combat tracker dogs and explosive detections dogs. During the period of conflict, these dogs played a significant role in guarding SLAF establishments, searching and guarding VVIP flights and engaging in explosive detection duties. Likewise our handlers worked with immense commitment.”

We proceeded to a garden area to witness these amazing dogs at work. First up was Riley a well-toned German Shepherd. His handler demonstrated how the pair would approach a building where an armed subversive was concealed. The handler cautiously walked with a gun in hand. He crouched down and rolled on the ground (avoiding potential gunfire), and then positioned himself on the ground aiming his weapon at the door. Riley did the exact stealthy movements, with precision timing. I have visited many military kennels in Sri Lanka and this was the best display of teamwork and showed how much Riley and his handler had trained to reach this level.

Shortly an adorable Labrador came on the scene. Her name was Lunar, and her friendly disposition shone like thousand moonbeams. Using the “long leash searching” technique her handler allowed Lunar to sweep in an arching radius. When explosive detections dogs trace a concealed bomb, they would indicate to their handler in many ways. Each handler knows the body language of his dog. Once done Lunar lovingly came toward us and we patted her.

Using a Doberman, a handler showed me how dogs respond to obedience training. Soon this canine collective was joined by an energetic brown and white Pointer and a large Bull Mastiff, who walked with the pomp of an Emperor. The Pointer was still under training and was so energetic and kept going around us. The Bull Mastiff looked around and sat proudly under a tree. Many other dogs were barking anxiously from there kennels, perhaps wanting to join in the action.

Whilst the dogs are intelligent and affectionate, their work is very serious. Their work saves lives. Their work involves protecting fighter aircraft. Wing Commander Kumarasinghe added, “After serving for three years with an unblemished service record, airmen can apply to serve in the kennels. We interview them and see if they have a genuine passion; they must firstly be animal lovers. They must have a voice that expresses the sound of command. This is an important attribute. We first send them to the SLAF Trade School in Ekala to enhance their English. All our dog commands are in English. The airmen then return to Katunayake for the Basic Training Course. This takes three-and-a-half months. During this time, each airman is assigned one dog. We monitor how they bond and train. The handlers must groom the dog, feed the dog and clean its kennels. On completion, they are sent for active duty, and they work for two years. If they perform well, the handler can register for the Advanced Training Course. This also takes three-and-a-half months.”

The dogs live and work as one big family. The Kennel Master (a senior non-commissioned officer) and his staff engage in administration work as each dog has its own file. Any illness is reported to the veterinarian officer Wing Commander. H. Jinaratne. The other two officers in the Air Dog Unit are Squadron Leader R. Jayaratne and Squadron Leader Srilal. A routine day at Katunayake begins around 5.00 am. The dogs are groomed and kennels are cleaned. By 8.30 am, both dog and handler line up for the muster parade. Breakfast is served at 10.30 am, a bit later when compared to house pets. The dogs engage in training activity. Those assigned to the international airport next door, travel by vehicle, and safeguard the most vital entry point into Sri Lanka. The dogs take turns in doing this duty. The puppies under training get their wholesome portion of milk, and are extremely cute. The second meal for the day is served at 5.30 pm.

 In addition to these tasks, the dogs take part in public exhibitions and entertain thousands of children with their unique skills. There is a cabinet full of trophies and gold medals which the teams have won at kennel competitions. In the past few years, SLAF handlers have trained in Pakistan, Singapore and Malaysia. Some canines have also been trained for search and rescue operations.

Another vital area of growth is when the dogs train alongside the SLAF Regiment of Special Forces (RSF). Here the dogs and handlers join these specialist combat troops and train for dangerous missions. Wing Commander Kumarasinghe said, “We are presently training 20 dogs from the Netherlands. They will work as narcotic sniffer dogs. We also have our Breeding Section in the cool hills of Diyatalawa. In addition, we operate the Sky Pet dog clinic in Colombo 8 where the public can pay and treat their dogs.”

The Sri Lanka Air Force kennels is a great example of devotion to duty.

****  Pictures by Dishan Joseph and Nadeera Udayanga ******

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