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Sniffing for Safety

Great Falls veterinarians provide care for dog used to find land mines

The job of a veterinarian is to care and heal sick animals, to protect their health from long-term danger and to make sure they live long, happy lives.

One client at the Seneca Hill Animal Hospital Resort and Spa, a Belgian Malinois Shepherd named Rosa, always receives special treatment when she visits the hospital because this hardworking dog, now enjoying her retirement, spent the last seven years making sure the people around her were safe from danger.

Rosa is a dog trained to sniff out the explosives in land mines, one of 800 dogs in the world currently working to reclaim fields, villages and school yards lost to the hidden danger that kills thousands of people and animals every year.

“Rosa spent seven years working with her handler to find land mines,” said John Homan, a veterinarian at Seneca Hill who became involved with Rosa and her handler, Kimberly McCasland, after a friend and client at Seneca Hill, Don McCoy, told him about a project at the Marshall Legacy Institute that cares for retired mine-sniffing dogs.

"Kim and Rosa travel all around the country to educate children about the work these dogs do," Homan said. The program is sponsored in part by Scholastic Printers, a company that publishes weekly newspapers for elementary school children.

The Marshall Legacy Institute has joined up with Senator Mike Enzi and his wife Diana to support their program, Children Against Mines Program, or CHAMPS, which works to raise both awareness and money for the training of the the dogs who sniff the plastic explosives found in land mines.

"My wife and I donated money to the programs and when we went to the national gala event back in May in Baltimore, we met Rosa and Kimberly," Homan said.

From there, Homan introduced Marty Veron, manager and owner of Seneca Hill, to Rosa and Kimberly.

"John offered to take care of Rosa whenever she's sick and do all of her exams for the health certificate she needs every time she travels," Veron said.

The Marshall Legacy Institute currently has over dogs in 25 countries, said Perry Baltimore, president of the Marshall Legacy Institute, which houses the CHAMPS program in its office in Arlington.

"Land mines are a horrific scourge," he said. "Over 70 countries around the world have land mines hidden. There's a lot of work to be done, but we're glad to be part of the solution."

Rosa is currently the only retired dog to participate in the educational programs, Baltimore said.

The dogs are trained at the Global Training Academy in Texas, the only facility in America that provides the service, he said.

IN HONOR OF the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, established to help Europe rebuild after World War II, the Marshall Legacy Institute was started to "help other war- torn countries begin to help themselves," Baltimore said.

In 1998, he began compiling information about land mines and the use of dogs to find mines and presented it to representatives from the U.S. Department of State, which "didn't know too much about using dogs to find the mines," he said.

"They became convinced that more detection dogs are a critical ingredient to be added to the de-miner's tool kit," he said, which secured some federal funding for the training program in Texas.

It costs roughly $20,000 to train one dog and its handler, Homan said. "One dog can cover 1,800 square meters, as compared to a person who can do only a small portion of that" during one day's work.

The need for these dogs is staggering: Every 20 seconds, someone is killed or severely injured by land mines, he said.

The Marshall Legacy Institute has satellite branches in Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and with the Swedish Army, Baltimore said. "We provide about 26 dogs each year to countries that need them to help revitalize and repopulate towns that have been deserted by the threat of land mines," he said.

Surprisingly, of the 400 dogs initially trained for the program, only 4 have been killed or injured while searching for mines, he said. "The Humane Society is one of our biggest supporters. The truth is, there are probably more animals killed by land mines than people but it's impossible to keep track," Baltimore said.

TRAINED DOGS ARE sent to countries in groups of six, he said, because of all the costs involved in their training and travel. Once the dogs have worked for typically between six and eight years, they retire from service and can either be kept in the country where they've worked or can return to the U.S., a decision usually made by the handler, Baltimore said.

"Typically, such a close bond develops between the handler and dog that the handler wants to keep the dog as a pet," he said. "If that's not the case, we ask the country where the dog is to find a good home for it or send it back here. There are strict rules that the dogs are not to be euthanized or abandoned," he said.

Most of the dogs are from the Shepherd family, he said. "Rosa is a Belgian Malinois dog, which is an ideal type of dog for this type of work because their hips are stronger and better over the long run," he said. German Shepherds tend to develop more problems in their hips as they age, which can shorten their working life.

The partnership with Seneca Hill has benefited both the Marshall Legacy and Rosa as well as the hospital.

"We weren't aware of the program before Don told us about it, and once you learn about it, you can't help but be sucked in," Veron said. "When people plant land mines, they usually plant them around schools and in fields, which means people can't grow crops for food and children can't go to school. When the land mines are cleared, you're really freeing the people who live there," he said.

Rosa is currently the only dog that travels and gives demonstrations on how she used to work in the field, Homan said, and the only one retired in Northern Virginia. "If there were other dogs in the area, we would happily offer care for them too," he said.

Using Rosa as an educational tool has two potential benefits, Homan said.

"If we educate children about this, when they grow up, we'll have all these people educated and concerned enough to stop this problem."

The other benefit is the passion children have for animals. One girl, after seeing Rosa's demonstration, was able to rally her friends, teachers and neighbors to raise the $20,000 to adopt a dog for training, he said.

"Dogs have been man's best friend for centuries," Baltimore said. "This is just another way that dogs can demonstrate just how great a friend they are to mankind."