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Originally published Monday, March 29, 2010 at 4:52 PM

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Sniffer dogs have their day in India's rush for security

Sniffer dogs are in high demand in India as officials boost security in the aftermath of the deadly Mumbai attacks in 2008.

The Washington Post

MEERUT, India — A man in a camouflage uniform held a leash and ordered, "Sniff! Search!"

A black Labrador retriever began sniffing immediately at items piled on the ground: dolls, toy cars, a plastic dump truck. When his nose rubbed a gray briefcase, he stopped, wagged his tail and sat down. A hidden explosive had been discovered.

The 16-month-old Lab, curiously named Boom, is an ace sleuth in India's battle against terrorism and one of hundreds of dogs at India's largest military-run training center.

Sniffer dogs are in high demand in India as officials boost security in the aftermath of the deadly Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The army has long used dogs to battle separatist violence in the states of Kashmir and Punjab. But as insurgents and terrorists expand their targets across the country, dogs are also being deployed to malls, metro stations, luxury hotels and other public places in India's booming new cities.

The country's handful of sniffer-dog training centers are run by the military. The institute here in the northern city of Meerut supplies trained dogs to the army, paramilitary forces, commando squads and police departments across India. Officials say the 50-year-old center has never had such a high volume of orders.

"The demand for sniffer dogs is colossal, and it has grown multifold since the Mumbai terror attacks. Every city wants more and more sniffer dogs now," said Commandant M.L. Sharma, chief of the Remount and Veterinary Corps, the army's premier training organization, which breeds, rears and trains dogs like Boom.

New Delhi's police department has 32 sniffer dogs and has ordered 50 more ahead of the Commonwealth Games in October. Major airports have increased the number of sniffer dogs by at least 50 percent since 2008. The National Security Guard, an elite commando force, needs dog teams at its new regional hubs.

"We had to wait a long time for our dogs," said Rajan Bhagat, a senior police officer in New Delhi. "The pressure on the government and private breeders and trainers is too much."

Until the Mumbai attacks, private security in India meant a uniformed guard standing at the gate with a baton.

"Every bomb blast is a new wake-up call," said Paramjit Singh, head of Taser India, an Arizona-based company. "Malls, cinemas, five-star hotels and offices now want their private security agencies to bring the dogs to sanitize their sites daily. India cannot afford expensive electronic explosive-detection devices, so dogs are a cheaper alternative."

Taser India makes nonlethal stun guns and set up an office here after the Mumbai attacks.

India's private security industry is largely unregulated, and Singh said many companies "are fooling their clients by walking untrained Labradors."

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Private security agencies say they do not have enough qualified trainers, and because they lack access to explosives, they use firecrackers to train their dogs.

At the military academy, dogs go through rigorous basic obedience training, take puppy aptitude tests and speed-walk on treadmills. One of the academy's star graduates, Bhanu, won a national medal for his work during the Mumbai attacks.

The training is not without hazard to the dogs. Dogs who sniff explosives constantly during training often have lung damage and shorter life spans, dog trainers say.

"It becomes like a smoker's chest. It brings down their vitality," Col. Sanjiv Bhalla said at the Meerut training center. "The sniffer dogs live for about eight years, whereas a regular, pet dog lives for 12 years."

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