F.O.B. SPERWAN GHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Sniffing out bombs that kill and maim hundreds of Western soldiers in Afghanistan each year is a game for Eggy, rewarded with a lightly boiled chicken breast.
“It’s as simple as that, she just wants to go out and have fun,” said Sinisa “Bullet” Erkman, a Croatian who works as the handler for the five-year-old German shepherd.
But her games helped save lives, and when the Canadian forces she works with head home next month, their U.S. replacements hope to recruit even more canine help.
“There should be more (dogs) than the Canadians have; their arrival is just a matter of space,” said Captain Sean Allred, who is taking command of Forward Operating Base Sperwan Ghar, currently crammed with both U.S. and Canadian troops.
Eggy and the other sniffer dogs she works with are mascot, protection, and a reminder of home all rolled into one for the troops they serve.
“This is my second tour and it made a big difference having the dogs, rather than having to send a guy to poke a suspected IED (improvised explosive device),” said Corporal Louis Larivierre, using the military’s standard name for the bombs.
On the smaller combat outposts, where soldiers are more isolated and there is only one dog, Eggy was so spoiled that Erkman sometimes had to ask the soldiers to ignore her for a couple of days, to remind her who is in control.
“I expected to come in one day and find her sitting at a table drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette; she was so comfortable. She was like a queen,” he said.
Crucial to the dogs’ success is their ties with their handlers. Erkman has to be able to read every nuance of Eggy’s behavior so he can spot when she finds a bomb or has stopped looking from boredom or exhaustion.
“You’re not just someone walking behind the dog, you are someone who can read and interpret the dog,” said Scott Allison, an American who is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan.
Each handler works with only one dog, and the elite canine-human teams spend more time together than many human couples, although the dogs are owned by a company, not the handlers.
Eggy stopped eating when Erkman went on holiday in May -- and he cut off a break in Istanbul to return to doling out her daily rations. The food didn’t change, but she wolfed it down.
He repays this devotion with scrupulous anticipation of her every need, and hopes to adopt her when she can no longer work.
“I take everything for her when we go out,” he said as she raced for a toy on the gravel of Forward Operating Base Sperwan Ghar. Temperatures in the area, near the Registan desert can easily climb over 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
“I carry food and 30 kilos of water, some of it all icy, prepared for her. I make her mud baths she can roll in to cool off, and massage her when she is tired,” he said.
The pair work in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar province, long a Taliban stronghold. Both animals and handlers face the same dangers as the soldiers they work to protect.
Handlers have been wounded or even killed. Even when the dogs survive attacks or explosions, they can need breaks to recover their ability to work in conflict zones.
“They aren’t unaffected by the stresses and emotions. The dogs can even develop a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, for example they become scared of loud noises,” Allison said.
For Eggy, the biggest challenge so far was adjusting to a country where dogs are often seen as unclean.
“She was very scared of the locals when she first came here, because they don’t like dogs and she sensed that,” Erkman said.
When its all over, however, the good life awaits, complete with canine pension.
“I plan to adopt her when she retires, if they let me. The company will pay her food and medical costs for the rest of her life, and I have a big garden where she can play,” he added.
Editing by Paul Tait and Yoko Nishikawa