Canine security squads deployed at malls have become a regular fixture for Filipino mallrats since terrorism gripped the world over in the early oughties. Along with routine bag checks, bomb-sniffing canines have been added to mall security measures to ensure the safety of Filipino shoppers.
Seeing an indolent member of the squad slumped and sleeping soundly by the corner of the entrance, however, hardly makes anyone feel safe and secure. But RNFK9 Detachment Commander Arnel Belesina explains a sleeping canine by the mall entrance is necessary for the dog’s optimal performance. According to Belesina, putting them by the entrance is one of the dog’s rest periods while on duty.
“Yun actually ’yung pinaka rest nila,” Belesina says. “They don’t really have anything to do at the entrances, so pahinga na nila ‘yun before umikot ulit sila.” A security dog, he says must rest every four hours, because when they’re tired, their sense of smell weakens and, if anything, it’s their sense of smell that they need to get the job done.
He introduces us to Lando, a black Labrador that goes a little crazy whenever he sees a ball. The three-year-old sweetheart is one of the six bomb-sniffing canine team—all siblings—who, with their respective handlers, are deployed at a mall in Makati. They are there to ensure the mall is safe and bomb-free.
Lando, along with his handler Edmond Ramos, does a daily 12-hour shift. It’s the same all throughout the year—12 hours—except during the Christmas season when they need to adjust their hours according to the extended mall operations. At the moment, their shift goes from 11am to 11pm, with Lando given an hour-long break in between.
Work has them doing their rounds, surveying and inspecting their areas, with having to stand still for long periods of time as the biggest hurdle of the job. “Sa totoo lang, hindi naman talaga mabigat yung work nila,” Belesina considers. “They’re just always on-call.”
A champion breed
Lando was born to be a bomb-sniffing dog. His parents, owned by a retired major from the Philippine National Police, are champion breeds from Camp Crame that were trained to become bomb-sniffing canine. It was only natural that their kids continue the family business.
“Two months old pa lang, nilalaro na sila ng bola. At five months, sinisimulan na ang training nila. When they reach eight months, pwede na silang isama sa unit (At two months old, they’re introduced to playing with balls. At five months, they begin their training. At eight months, they start working with the bomb-sniffing unit),” says Edmond Ramos, Lando’s handler.
Training to become a bomb-sniffing dog includes having them sniff and get familiar with the different components that make up an explosive, including black powder or gunpowder, and C-4, a kind of plastic explosive. Apart from following basic commands, these security dogs are also taught special signals for when they sniff something suspicious.
RNFK9, a security agency specializing in providing canine units, initially trains their canine squad off-site in Cavite by professional instructors. At the moment, the security agency has about 80 dogs in its roster, deploying a six-dog team to huge establishments such as malls that have signed up as clients. “A regular building usually just employs two bomb-sniffing dogs,” adds Belesina.
Their handlers take over the maintenance training once the dogs are given their posts. “We try to train them at least three to four times a week with each session lasting about 10 minutes,” Ramos says in Tagalog. “Ginagawa namin ‘yung maintenance training so that they’re always alert. Maganda siyempre kung ganado palagi ‘yung mga aso.”
Maintenance training has handlers hiding canisters of black powder and C-4 all over the mall for dogs like Lando to hunt. When he is successful, Lando is rewarded with a ball, his favorite toy.
“Hindi pwedeng bigyan ng treats as a reward kasi hahanapin na niya [‘yung treats] lagi. And when they get full with the treats, they turn lethargic,” says Ramos.
Belesina agrees: “Bawal ang sobrang tabang aso sa unit kasi mas mabilis silang mapapagod. Isa pa, nagiging tamad sila.”
On a monthly basis
Like regular adult dogs, security canine like Lando are fed twice a day, given water when needed (which isn’t often inside the air-conditioned mall), and they always go on duty with their handlers armed with plastic bags for “accidents.”
Every month, the RNFK9 dogs get their regular check-ups. “A vet goes to the barracks once a month to check up on the dogs,” Belesina says, “pero yung owner namin, trained din kasi siya so he injects the necessary vaccines and shots.” Ordinarily, it is skin diseases they’re wary about.
Such regimen—strict diet, regular check-up, and maintenance training—has bomb-sniffing dogs working the job for seven long human years. “None of our dogs have ever died on the job and they haven’t killed or bitten anybody either,” Belesina says in Tagalog.
When Lando reaches 10 (human) years, he’ll be retired and be brought back to the Cavite HQ to enjoy the remainder of his days—still eating twice daily and, with hope, still enjoying his toy ball.
In the meantime, Lando is free to sleep on the job—especially at the entrances—as long as he gets up when Ramos commands him to. “Mas mabuti ang asong relaxed kaysa sa asong pagod. Mas alerto ang mga relaxed na aso. Kapag may inaamoy sila, sigurado kang 100 percent ang bigay nila,” says Ramos.