With airports having officially opened to tourists yesterday (21), the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake (BIA) was a flurry of activity after nine months of hiatus. The Air Dog Unit at the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Base in Katunayake held a “Passing Out Parade” on 13 January for the newly inducted Air Dogs of the Unit. The event was held at Katunayake and Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana reviewed the parade as the Chief Guest. The parade was attended by Director – Ground Operations Air Vice Marshal Camillus Labrooy, Southern Air Commander and SLAF Katunayake Base Commander Air Vice Marshal Udeni Rajapaksa, and a limited number of senior officers of the SLAF due to the health restrictions which are in place.
The 20 Air Dogs who passed out and were inducted to the SLAF in the year 2020, were from the Netherlands. These Air Dogs are made up of five Belgian Malinois, five Labrador retrievers, five German shepherds, and five English springer spaniels. They are specially trained as sniffer dogs in detecting narcotic substances and will be deployed at international airports. Financial assistance for these Air Dogs was provided by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka.
History of SLAF Air Dog Unit
The SLAF Air Dog Unit has a long history of service to the nation. Initially established on 23 August 1972, the Air Dog Unit was re-designated as the No. 48 Regiment Wing in 2012 and further re-designated as the Air Dog Wing in early 2013. As of 16 July 2013 to date, the unit is known as the SLAF Air Dog Unit. The unit is commanded by Wing Commander Niroshan Kumarasinghe.
Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Wing Commander Kumarasinghe said: “The SLAF Air Dog Unit functions under the purview of the Director – Ground Operations and is actively involved in airfield defence operations, search operations at all international airports of the country, search and rescue operations during situations of natural calamities, and explosive/narcotic detection operations.”
In 1985, 12 Air Dogs were inducted and in 1998, another 17 Air Dogs were inducted from England. In 2006, another 12 Air Dogs were inducted from Germany, and 10 more Air Dogs were inducted from the Netherlands in 2013. Currently, there are 14 Air Dog Units in Sri Lanka to undertake various duties like providing assistance to VIPs, clearance and checking of aircraft, and protecting airfields. These dogs are also capable of providing security under the requisition of the Police, military, or any private organisation. They are also involved in tracking and search and rescue operations.
The dogs were brought down to Sri Lanka from the Netherlands on 18 February 2020, where they were then placed in the Diyatalawa Combat Training School: Kennel Division under probation for a month, so they could adjust to the vast climate change from their country of birth. They began their training after the month, with a focus on explosives detection and narcotics detection, which Wing Commander Kumarasinghe said, is the first time the SLAF undertook narcotics training. These Air Dogs and their handlers were especially trained with joint support and expertise of the Sri Lanka Police Kennel Division in Asgiriya and the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board where they were trained with the use of live samples of explosive and narcotic substances for the first time.
Out of the 20 dogs, the best eight were selected for narcotic training, and it took roughly six months to train them up to standard. Wing Commander Kumarasinghe explained that these dogs will be used to eradicate the drug mafia in the country.
“These dogs are also amazing actors,” he added. “They can also participate in air dog shows, for events like children’s day parades. Upon request, government and nongovernment organisations can also hire them for air dog shows.”
Speaking to The Morning Brunch, veterinary surgeon, SLAF Diyatalawa Explosive and Narcotic Detection Dog Course Officer in Charge, and SLAF Squadron Leader (Dr.) L.K.H.R.T. Amarasiri informed us that these dogs first underwent an obedience training session, where they were taught all the commands and how to respond to them. Next, they went through a session called toy training for a month, where they learned to get used to explosives and narcotics.
He noted the biggest challenge of this training was obtaining real drugs to train the dogs, “We already handled explosives so it wasn’t a problem to obtain them. Even having 2 g of drugs on you can get you sentenced to a lifetime in prison. Even the Police usually use dummies in such training, but we wanted the dogs to reach a standard where we can assure that they sniff out all drugs.” He explained that they obtained drugs like heroin, cocaine, hash, and cannabis with the help of the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board. Handling narcotics is no easy task, as Dr. Amarasiri had to weigh them constantly to assure that nothing was amiss and ensure that these narcotics did not fall into the wrong hands. “The Dangerous Drugs Control Board does not have the authority to give out drugs to us; we had to obtain permission from the Director General – Health.” He added that they faced many obstacles, but overcame them and went on with the training of these dogs.
Sri Lanka does not have proper machinery to detect narcotics as of yet, which is why the training of these dogs needed to be so precise, so that the SLAF can make sure they are able to sniff out all drugs, especially in the airport, even if hidden well. “Drugs are currently a big trend in the country, and many people tend to get addicted and their life is destroyed from there on. If these dogs can sniff out all the drugs incoming to the country, we can actually prevent this and make life better for all citizens and help them live in a safe environment,” Dr. Amarasiri stated.