Using detection dogs, also known as sniffer dogs, is a relatively new phenomenon in Belarus. In 2005, there was only one dog and one handler at the Hrodna customs. Today, there is a whole canine unit comprising eight dogs and seven officers serving at different checkpoints across the Hrodna region. Occasionally, they are also sent to Hrodna city to help police and rescue workers. The sniffer dogs benefit from free food and veterinary care provided by the state as well as a ‘retirement’ plan.
Home and workplace
According to the head of the canine unit of the Hrodna customs office, Ignat Linevich, each detection dog lives with its handler, as the contact between officers and their animals is important. This also allows them to respond to emergency calls much quicker. The dogs have a ‘fitness zone’ where they train and play.
“If the dog is out of shape, it will have problems breathing. All our dogs are in good physical and mental health. We even weigh them regularly to determine their portions,” – says Ignat.
The customs officer has worked with his shepherd dog Zeyk for two and a half years. This is his third sniffer dog. His first canine companion died at the age of 11. Ignat thinks the workload definitely affects the condition of the animals. His second dog is now retired and lives with Ignat’s relatives in the countryside.
Pigs may have the best sense of smell, but dogs work better
Some breeds are more suitable for sniffer dogs than others. For example, German shepherds are a well-studied breed. This makes it easier for inexperienced dog handlers to work with them. There are certain qualities that the dog needs to have for this type of work – it should be playful but not aggressive. If the dog sees a ball and immediately jumps on it, it has potential.
Dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger than ours. But even they are far from the best sniffers.
“Actually, pigs have the best sense of smell. But we do not use them,” says Ignat.
The customs officer addresses the common perception that dog handlers give drugs to their dogs.
“Of course, this is not true,” says Ignat. “We train their sense of smell using a special simulator and smell samples.”
Becoming a dog handler
All dog handlers have different backgrounds. For example, Inspector Natalya Evlashevich is a psychologist by education. She and her canine partner – the German shepherd Icarus – are the youngest employees at the unit.
Senior Inspector Yegor Bondar studied law at Hrodna State University. He started work at the customs office in Berestovitsa, but in November 2018 he was transferred to the canine unit. Yegor’s partner is the German shepherd Dallas who is one and a half years old.
There is no dog handler training centre in Hrodna. Newcomers usually learn from their senior colleagues. They also attend courses at the Department of Cynology in Minsk. Handlers need to update their qualifications every year in Pinsk and Minsk at the Customs Institute. Officers and dogs study side by side.
The Customs Institute organises an annual competition for the best dog handler. Officers and their dogs compete in searching for drugs, weapons and explosives.
Dogs do most of the legwork
Dog handlers consider their work to be creative and don’t mind the long and irregular hours. Sometimes customs officers have to work for 12 hours straight. However, sniffer dogs cannot concentrate for that long – they need rest and distraction from their duties. When the dogs are ‘off duty’, their human partners use specialised equipment – mirrors, endoscopes, gas analysers, and tools for determining the uniformity and density of materials.
“But the dog does most of the job,” says Ignat. “Sometimes I trust the animal more than myself.”
Natalya recalls a situation where a driver tried to get rid of some hash and threw it under his trailer:
“The dog had such a strong sense of smell that it noticed immediately,” says the young officer.
Yegor says that when he works on his own, he has to check each car lined up for inspection.
“But when you work with a dog, you only need to check one car – the one that the dog is interested in,” says the senior inspector.
“Dogs are happy to jump in”
The Hrodna handlers and their four-legged partners took part in a project aimed at strengthening the capacity of the customs canine units. The project was part of the cross-border cooperation programme ‘Poland–Belarus–Ukraine 2014–2020’.
Customs officers from Belarus and Poland organised a number of events to help increase border crossing security and prevent drug trafficking.
As part of the project, a total of six vehicles for transportation of sniffer dogs were purchased for the customs offices in Hrodna, Minsk and Brest. Dog handlers from Poland and Belarus had three joint trainings, where they exchanged experience and tactics in detecting drugs and other restricted goods. According to Ignat, the level of training of dog handlers in Belarus is just as good as that of the customs officers in Poland. As a result of this cross-border cooperation project, Belarus received nearly €130,000 of EU funding.
Ignat says the detection dogs got used to the new cars quickly:
“The vehicles are equipped with mechanical ventilation and air conditioning. There is soft bedding for the dog, and the compartment for the animal minimises vibrations while the car is moving. This means the dog is comfortable, even when it takes several hours to reach the designated posting.”
Dogs are a feel-good factor at the border checkpoint
Ignat has noticed that people have different reactions to the sniffer dogs:
“For example, they are usually gentle with cocker spaniels and labradors. They know that labradors are kind dogs, and spaniels are cute and funny. But they are more cautious with shepherd dogs, as they are larger and sometimes bare their teeth. Some people are afraid of dogs, while others will see a dog from afar and rush to pet it. There are also those who ask why the dog is not wearing a muzzle. What muzzle are they talking about! My dog has taken a training course and its job is to find banned substances. It is an official customs officer.”
Handlers note that their dogs have a positive effect on the people at the border checkpoint.
“Some try to pet the animals, and others talk to them. People mostly smile when they see them. The sniffer dogs are definitely a feel-good factor.”