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ALEX 2004-2007

BARBARA RIGHTON May 7 2007
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ALEX 2004-2007

BARBARA RIGHTON May 7 2007

ALEX 2004-2007

He was ‘high-spirited, play-oriented’ and bred to save soldiers’ lives in dangerous places like Afghanistan

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Alex was born in Holland in 2005, the son of two purebred Belgian Malinois. He was handsome and athletic, but he was not bred for his looks. Although they are classified as herding dogs by the American Kennel Club,

in Europe Malinois are raised very specifically to be dogs of war. They are highly alert, full of fife, fearless and valuable. Last November, American K9 Detection Services of Edgewater, Fla., a com-

pany that currently contracts out about 30 bomb-detection dogs to both the Canadian and the American military in Afghanistan, paid US$8,000 for Alex. “There are lots of reasons why we buy dogs imported from Germany and Holland,” says operations and logistics manager Rodger Lowe, an ex-bomb squad police officer and dog handler in Afghanistan from November 2005 to November 2006. “Here in North America, people want a more docile house pet. The dog that chews up your couch, that tears down your fence, that annihilates your children’s toys, those are the dogs we want.”

Which is not to say Alex was vicious; he was just high-spirited and play-oriented. “The basics in our training are, you find his favourite toy and you keep an eye on him while he works to retrieve it,” Rodger says. Alex’s favourite toy was a tennis ball.

He would gallop around the training facility in Florida chasing one until he nearly dropped from exhaustion. That made him easy to train as a bomb-sniffer.

American K9 trains all its dogs with expectations of play. It does not use strict obedience or any form of punishment like collars that pinch a dog’s neck or shock it. Alex’s trainers simply planted his tennis ball amid a small field of explosives, such as black powder or dynamite or TNT, where he could see it but not reach it. “At the same time as he is seeing his tennis ball, he is smelling all the odours of the explosives,” Rodger says. “Now he is associating those odours with the ball. And then we get to a point where we take the tennis ball out and whenever he comes to the area where he smells the explosives, he sits. The trainer will come from behind him and toss the tennis ball at the area, so the dog perceives, okay, I smell the explosives, I sit, my ball pops out at me.”

Alex had one other imperative physical quality—he had a long snout. Rodger explains that dogs’ snouts have row upon row of scent hairs. As the dog smells an odour, it is passed from hair follicle to hair follicle and at each, it is examined by the brain. An acute sniffer dog like Alex could smell a drop of contaminant in an Olympic-sized swimming pool full of water.

In December, when he was about 2Vi years old, American K9

sent Alex to Kandahar, where he was assigned to a Canadian engineering unit. Rodger was there to get him up to speed, and Alex had another trainer before his regular handler, Shaun Parker, took over in early January. Rodger says that according to their contract with both the Canadian and the U.S. military, their dog handlers are all former policemen or former military men. (He will not say which Shaun was, nor will he reveal any other details about him.) He does say Shaun and the dog had a close relationship, working side by side under dangerous circumstances every day. They were both very fit, but Alex’s entire working career would have lasted only two more years. Shaun planned to take him home when the dog was retired at age five.

On Tuesday, March 20, according to two separate reports (one of them from the Canadian Forces) that Rodger has read, Alex and Shaun were out in front of the Canadian unit, clearing a roadway for improvised explosive devices planted by the Tal-

iban. They had already located two IEDs powerful enough to kill troops riding in a Humvee. Then they moved to another location. The Canadians were trying to recover a Coyote surveillance vehicle that had struck a mine and gone off a road. Their section commander, Sgt. Sheldon Herritt, called for Alex and Shaun to inspect the area. “Alex was smelling an IED,” Rodger says, “when he stepped on the trigger before he was able to alert.” The bomb went off. Alex was killed immediately. Sgt. Herritt was wounded and Shaun was very badly injured. He cannot speak about the incident, Rodger says. He has just been moved out of a neurological intensive care unit in a U.S. hospital.

BARBARA RIGHTON