On International Dog Day, we want to take a moment to ‘paws’ and reflect on the brilliance of dogs, not just as companions but as superheroes helping rid the world of mines.
“The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. She is my dear friend," says Vian Khaider Khalaf, of her colleague X-Lang — a member of a trailblazing team of four-legged lifesavers in Iraq.
MAG has almost 5,000 staff in over 25 countries, working to rid the world of the deadly legacy of conflict and protect communities from the threat of armed violence.
In Iraq, working side-by-side with the brave women and men saving lives and rebuilding safer futures is a team of 'super detector' dogs.
MAG has worked with dog teams for several years in Iraq, removing the threat of landmines left behind decades ago during the Iran-Iraq War, but the 'super detector' team is the first of its kind in humanitarian mine action anywhere in the world.
All mine detection dogs are trained to sniff out explosives, like TNT, but X-Lang and her teammates take this one step further. Trained in Bosnia and Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.
These skills are invaluable.
As ISIS retreated from Iraq, they littered communities with lethal and indiscriminate improvised landmines.
ISIS made many of the explosives they left behind from everyday household items, such as pots and pans, with detonators and batteries — items that take a keenly refined sense of smell to pick out.
For the hundreds of thousands of women, girls, boys and men who had fled the fighting, removing the mines is essential if they are ever to feel safe enough to return home.
Halema Hajy joined MAG, first as a deminer and later as a dog handler, to contribute to her community by helping to make the land safe again.
But, as a dog lover, it is working alongside her canine colleague that makes the work a pleasure: "Aron is kind and soft; he is clever and loves to play. But when it comes time to work, he is dedicated. He is a great dog and never misses a target. He takes his work very seriously!"
For Vian, spending time with her canine partner is the best part of her job: “X-Lang is the loveliest dog — the first time I saw her, I felt a sense of belonging. Now, I can’t stand being without her. I'm always waiting for the sun to rise so that I can go to work with her again."
X-Lang and Aron work alongside Branco, Django, Lewis and Darko on the six-strong expert 'super detector' team.
And the team is not just highly skilled. It is also fast. Aron, X-Lang and their teammates can cover huge areas quickly — making safe about 1,500 m2 of contaminated land in a morning. They start their work at 0500 to avoid the midday heat.
After their 'shifts' in the field, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together — often cooling down in the specially-designed 'doggy pool' at the MAG Iraq base.
Like anyone who has ever enjoyed the company of a canine companion, the bonds between the handlers and their four-legged colleagues are unbreakable.
When superheroes X-Lang and Aron retire, Vian and Halema hope to finally be able to take them home to live out a long, happy and well-deserved retirement.