K9 handlers and their dogs (Part 2)

Lady, a Labrador showing her cadaver-detecting skills in locating a ‘dead body’ (dummy made with rotten meat scent).

(Read Part 1 here: https://dayakdaily.com/k9-handlers-and-their-dogs-part-1/)

by Nancy Nais

DOGS have a very special role in the world of search and rescue (SAR), as their keen sense of smell, enhanced hearing, sharp vision and endurance have continually proven to be invaluable in the effort to locate missing, lost and injured persons.


Because of their extraordinary abilities, dogs are often able to reduce the time spent on searching.

Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) Malaysia recently acquire 12 dogs from the UK for its canine (K9) units, six each for Sabah and Sarawak.

The dogs are trained in three disciplines, namely cadaver, wilderness and fire investigation.

DayakDaily spoke to two K9 handlers Kenneth Masir and Steven Ambu about their work in cadaver and their furry buddies.

A single dog in the cadaver team can be as effective as 10 trained human searchers when locating a missing person in a given period of time.

Kenneth’s 4-legged partner is an English Springer Spaniel by the name of Bella, skilled in scent discrimination in water cadaver operations.

“Cadaver dogs are trained to locate various types of human remains such as blood, bone, flesh, hair and so on. They are trained to indicate on human odor in various states of decomposition,” Kenneth said, adding that the training also involves a variety of demanding environments to ensure their reliability in the field.

“Trained dogs are able to distinguish between human remains, animal remains, and a wide range of other odors that would normally be expected to distract them,” Kenneth, 35, added.

Firefighter and K9 handler Kenneth Masir with Bella.

Recently, DayakDaily was given the opportunity to visit the unit’s headquarters in Old Klang Road, Kuala Lumpur, where a cadaver dog by the name of Lady demonstrated how she detect a ‘dead body’ (dummy made with rotten meat scent).

Touching on the method of training, Kenneth dismissed rumours that these dogs were put through harsh training.

“Bomba’s search and rescue dogs are different from other enforcement dogs. We used the non-compulsive (non-force) approach, meaning emotional but firm method. All of our dogs in the department are playful and affectionate, but they are very intelligent.”

He said working with dogs is a very unique position because a good K9 handler must learn to think differently, be extremely flexible, able to make decisions on the fly and be dedicated because the work can be long and grueling, especially if it involves big operations.

“In the end, the variety of a handler’s skills developed during training, combined with the sensory abilities of a specialized canine partner and actual operation, will produce a ‘team’, Kenneth said.

Kenneth is also a member of the elite International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), a global network of more than 80 countries and organisations under the United Nations umbrella.

INSARAG deals with urban search and rescue (USAR) related issues, facilitate coordination between the various international teams who make themselves available for deployment to countries experiencing devastating events of structural collapse due primarily to earthquakes.

In Malaysia, the Special Malaysia Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (SMART) is INSARAG certified heavy USAR.

The SMART team draws its members from Malaysian Armed Forces, Royal Malaysian Police and Bomba Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Steven opined that no machine can reliably identify the odor of decomposition, but properly trained cadaver dogs can.

“The signature scent of human death is unique. A trained cadaver dog’s nose do not seem to be affected much by water concealing the body and their scenting capabilities to water by working on a boat. They are used to narrowing down large areas for divers to search and recover human remains,” Steven said.

However, there is also the difficult part of water search, which is for the handler to direct the boat based on the dog’s indication and behaviour.

Just because a dog signals the scent of human remains does not mean the body lies directly beneath where the dog tells the handler, bearing in mind, a body may move in water, meaning the scent may be moved around especially if the water is flowing or tidal.

Therefore the handler must take all these factors into account before relaying information on to divers.

Apart from that, Steven added that a solid working knowledge of canine behavior is definitely one of the most important factors that leads to success in this field. It is vital for handlers to have some natural ability to communicate with animals, and not just loving dogs or being patient.

Firefighter and K9 handler Steven Ambu with Clif.

Steven opined that most people have some ability to associate with and understand animals; however not all may have the natural abilities to work with animals.

“Their heart is in it, they work hard at it, but if that ability to bond with and understand the dog just isn’t there, then it will be difficult,” Steven said.

It must begin with motivated handlers who readily accept the fact that they will be working and training under morbid scenarios.

“While it is rewarding when you are successful in location a missing person, not many have the essential interest in dealing with all phases of human decomposition. So our training situations are designed to simulate searches for bodies, include scenarios that closely resemble cases that the team might be expected to handle.”

Meanwhile, Steven also shared his happy experiences but a painful goodbye with his former canine charge Hardy.

He is one of the six handlers who were transferred back to Sarawak to kick-start the K9 unit here.

“We’ve worked together, through thick and thin for 10 years. Hardy has showed, taught and given me many learning experiences which I will treasure for life. Just before I left Kuala Lumpur, I sat down with him for quite awhile. I spoke to him, I thanked him and I cried,’ Steven said.

Although it was very painful, Steven told Hardy that it is time for him to go because of work and there will be another handler to look after him.

He is currently paired up with Clif, a two-year-old English Springer Spaniel, also in the cadaver discipline.

“We will be the new best friends and I look forward to working together with him.”

(Read Part 1 here: https://dayakdaily.com/k9-handlers-and-their-dogs-part-1/)

— DayakDaily