Commando K9 Unit: A formidable military force | Daily News

Commando K9 Unit: A formidable military force

Wilma and her handler in action
Wilma and her handler in action

As the Sri Lanka Army expanded its strike capability the need for a highly empowered fighting element was realized in the late 1970s. Two officers and a few soldiers were selected to form the first team of commando men. By February 1978, the first batch of soldiers from various regiments were taken for training. Two officers along with 24 soldiers underwent intense training in the jungles of Diyatalawa. The first Commando Squadron was formed. One of the important elements in the development of the Commando Regiment is the use of trained military dogs. These dogs have served Sri Lanka in the dangerous theatres of combat as tracking dogs, attack dogs and explosives detection dogs.

Commanding Officer of 4CR Colonel Saman Perera said, “We are proud of the role and task of our military dogs. During the war, they assisted us in offensive and covert operations. Dogs are also used in anti-hijack operations, as they can detect hidden explosives when we are raiding a building. In keeping with the new task of combating narcotics, our dogs have made many detections. Our dogs have the physical endurance and mobility (logistics) to respond for a narcotics search. A Labrador named Rudy recently detected narcotics hidden inside a bus in Mannar. We are proud to be part of this task in eliminating drugs.”

The name of a brave dog who earned the respect of the entire regiment is Snowy. This Labrador was trained and deployed as a tracking dog attached to the Number 4 CR Unit and handled by Lance Corporal D.H. Sampath. In March 2008, he was tracking a group of terrorists in the deep jungles of Weli Oya. Such missions are dangerous and subject to deadly ambushes at choke points. The threat of wild elephants and venomous snakes was a secondary enemy to the commando foot patrols.

As Snowy got closer to the fleeing rebels a grenade had been thrown at the dog causing him multiple shrapnel injuries. The brave dog proceeded to chase, bleeding from many wounds in the face of direct gunfire before he fell down. Shortly, Snowy was transferred to Anuradhapura for treatment and later rushed to the Veterinary Hospital in Peradeniya where he was duly operated. The dog received 11 wounds to his lungs and bowels. Although the surgery was successful, Snowy died a few weeks later in May 2011. He became the first dog to be posthumously awarded a military medal in Sri Lanka.

Last year after the Easter Sunday attacks, the dogs of the Commando kennels were immediately deployed to key installations and hotels. A dog named Mandy did an excellent task in searching a particular five-star hotel, to the surprise of a visiting foreign explosives detection expert. The dogs were deployed to many diplomatic missions for search duties. I personally witnessed a Labrador searching a church before worship began.

The Ganemulla Kennels

When I first visited Ganemulla I saw an amazing array of dogs: Labradors, Dobermans, German Shepherds, Boxers, Beagles, Belgian Malinois, Dalmatians, Golden Retrievers, English Springer Spaniels and Rottweilers. It was the first time I met the dog Teesha, a friendly Retriever. Major Thalagala (Veterinarian) explained the long journey of the K-9 unit. The need to use dogs was realized in 1983. Initially six dogs were donated to the Army by Australia. These five Labradors and one Doberman were the pioneer canines of this kennel. This initial dog unit was trained in the detection of explosives. Basic training begins when the dogs are eight weeks old. In this period the primary focus is obedience commands.

Each breed of dog enables it to excel in a particular skill. This comes naturally to the dog by its intelligence, aptitude, body mass, endurance and temperament. Labradors are trained in sniffing for concealed explosives. German Shepherds are suited for tracking. The dog can be given advanced training as an attack dog.

The dogs on active duty begin the day at 6 am with a round of PT, running around with their handlers. Grooming the animals is done at 7 am. These military dogs are fed by 8 am on a diet of milk and eggs. This is followed by a one hour rest. Some dogs continue to engage in advance training. By 5 pm they get their second meal for the day which includes a portion of beef. The dogs of the Commando Regiment continue to help maintain security at vital installations around the country including the International Airports at Katunayake, Palaly and Mattala.

Training for the Rottweiler named Wilma begins very early in the morning. The robust dog is able to pin down an enemy jumping fiercely onto the target. Wilma is a specialized personal protection dog. She is probably the first military dog to achieve this operational status in Sri Lanka. The dogs are trained to work with commando teams on various assault missions, which include night time operations. Training and caring for the dogs is a demanding duty. The officers ensure the animals are in peak medical condition. It takes about 15 months to train a dog to its full working capacity. The Army has a modern surgery for the dogs at Ganemulla to enhance their total well-being.

Cadaver Search Dogs

In the past few years, we witnessed landslides and other natural disasters in the hill country. During rescue operations, first responders put themselves at great risk to search for survivors, amidst rain and gushing water. Some bodies of victims are never discovered, and remain buried forever. Realizing the importance of carefully taking the dead out of such dangerous terrain requires a safe response, the Army Commando Regiment had accepted this challenge. In September 2018 the regiment’s kennels received their first batch of Beagle puppies.

These cute and intelligent dogs are on an important mission. I made my next visit to the regiment’s kennels located at Ganemulla. The officer in charge at that time Major Shirantha Allahakkoon explained this is the first time they were training Beagles who would be able to detect a dead body, which could be in various stages of decomposition, concealed in different landscapes. This concept is new to our emergency first responders.

The Beagles were 14 months old. The Commando team initially gave them the basic obedience training for three months. During this time, the handlers are able to bond with the dogs, understanding their body language. This training is unique - they are not looking for a fleeing subversive. In contrast, the Beagles are searching for a motionless body, buried in the mud or submerged in water. The body may be buried there for a week. The intelligent Beagles are trained using natural and artificial scent. The artificial scent is purchased from Germany and delivers a real-life putrid odour. Cadaver dogs have been trained and used in foreign countries for at least the past decade. Normally the following breeds have good olfactory senses - Beagle, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Belgian Malinois, English Springer Spaniel and the Coon Hound. Medically a human body decomposes in five stages and releases a staggering 424 chemicals, during the process. A Beagle has 300 million olfactory receptors in its nose which makes it best suited for this task. The dogs are able to pick up and filter the scent of a corpse ranging from 6-10 feet in the soil. The Army has effectively trained them in different locations such as Nuwara Eliya and Anuradhapura, focusing on extreme climates. This venture by the Commando Regiment is a first in South East Asia. The kennels have a current strength of 115 dogs.

Colonel of the Regiment, Major General Pradeep Silva provides direction for the improvement of the K9 unit under the prudent guidance of Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva. Moreover, Regimental Centre Commandant Brigadier Shamal Silva, Brigade Commander Brigadier Shanaka Rathnayaka, Commanding Officer 4 Commando Regiment Colonel Saman Perera and Major Sudeera Thalagala (Veterinary Doctor) provide due supervision for the consistent growth and welfare of the Commando K9 unit. The present OIC is Major Dhanushka Gunathileke. The Russian philosopher Leo Tolstoy once said that patience and time are the greatest warriors, and the soldiers of the Commando kennels have duly achieved this level of success with patience and dedication.