Name: Katja. Profession: Explosive detector
At nine years of age, Katja is something of a veteran. However, each day this female Belgian Shepherd comes to work with fresh energy and enthusiasm. She has worked in an impressive number of African countries: Kenya, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo... and thanks to her exceptional sense of smell she has detected dozens of explosive devices.
Katja, one of the two explosive-detection dogs. | © J-J. Bernard / Handicap International
After an hour on the road, travelling to the area to be demined in Diagnon, Katja lets it be known that she wants to get out and move around. She yaps and turns around in circles in her cage. ‘She’s a bit crazy,’ says her handler, Jonathan Matambo. ‘Katja is a very active dog, incredibly skilled. In spite of her age, she will carry on working for many years to come.’
Mine clearers who use explosive detection dogs are much faster and more efficient than mine clearers who use metal detectors. Their sense of smell can pinpoint the explosives. They are very good at detecting mines that do not contain metal – which metal detectors cannot pick up on – or intervening on land which contains lots of metallic debris.
You can immediately tell that Katja is a lively, energetic dog, who needs to be active. ‘She loves to play,’ continues Jonathan. ‘Once the work is done she gets her reward. Throwing the ball to her... She loves the fact that I take care of her, that I brush her and take her for walks. She whines a bit when I go away, or when she feels I’m not being attentive enough.’
Somewhat jealous of her handler, who she wants to keep all to herself, Katja was not exactly the model of friendliness on my first visit. However, once she has become accustomed to new people, she can be really affectionate.
The lady doesn’t like to be disturbed when she’s at work. She can be easily distracted. It is at these times that the dog handler has to be at his most vigilant. But once she gets going, she’s tireless and nothing gets past her!
At home, Katja and her colleague Rex, a German Shepherd, each have their own area outside of Jonathan’s house: ‘I never bring them into the house, they aren’t pets. They need to understand that ours is a professional relationship.’