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October 21, 2011

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Finding banned items

WHEN suitcases and baggage pass by on the conveyer belt, sniffer dogs Harry and Ke Ke start their work. They walk briskly on the belt, sniffing every case, box and bag.

The dogs are used to find things - such as animal and plant products, fruit and even drugs - which are banned from being brought into the country. If they find something suspicious, the dogs lay down beside the luggage. Officials with the Shanghai Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau then take the luggage off the belt for further examination.

Harry is a black springer while Ke Ke is a Labrador. As experienced sniffer dogs, both will compete in a contest in Beijing this month.

Trainers said a puppy usually needs 12 to 18 months of training before they are ready to be a sniffer dog. First, they spend six to eight months becoming familiar with the environment they will work in the future. They interact with humans, try to adapt to different environments and listen to different sounds.

When they are nine months to one year old, they start the next stage of training, such as finding a ball that is hidden in obscure places. This lasts about six months. Eventually the dogs are required to find a ball in an inconspicuous corner of a noisy place. During the period, the dogs also learn to smell different items hidden in luggage.

"During training, Harry was really fond of a red ball," said Shen Anmin, Harry's trainer, who is with Shanghai Zhongbao Hua'an Longgen K-9 Services Co Ltd. "As long as he sees the ball, he stays very excited."

Compared to Harry, Ke Ke is quiet. When he is off duty, he sits quietly next to his trainer Chen Youlun.

"He is very stable," said Chen, who is from Zimba Pets Co Ltd. "But he is keen at his work, and seldom makes a mistake."

After internship of about a month, a dog can officially work as a sniffer dog as long as it passes the final test.

Great contribution

Dogs are smarter than people realize. They smell apples and bananas most in training, but they are able to find some relatively rare fruit such as mangosteens as well. Besides, they can also detect skin products and antlers when they smell them for the first time.

Ten quarantine dogs work at the city's two airports. They have made a great contribution in preventing banned or dangerous goods from being brought into the country.

Bureau officials recall many cases. One was in 2008, when a man from the Middle East attempted to smuggle hemp into the country. He hid the hemp under a fish head in his case, trying to pass customs. However, he didn't know fish heads are also on China's banned list. A quarantine dog laid down between his case on the conveyer belt when it smelled the fish, helping officials find the 40 kilograms of hemp leaves hidden under it.

Trainers said although it seems to be easy work, it is challenging for dogs. The dogs need to rest a lot because long-term continuous work may numb their nose and do harm to their health.

The bureau said sniffer dogs work about eight hours a day, but they need 15-minute breaks every 30 minutes.

Usually the dogs work for three to five years. After they retire, trainers said it's hard to find a family that is willing to adopt them. The trainers usually take care of them until they die.

"We are with them from when they are puppies," said Shen.

"There is a profound bond between them and us. Take Harry for example, I love him so much that even when he does something wrong, I don't have the heart to punish him."


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