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Caring for Dogs that Care for Kids

Pulley Center Student gets work experience caring for Mine Detection Dogs.

Modern landmines are made almost entirely of plastic to resist detection. Antipersonnel mines can be detonated by only a few pounds of pressure. Their efficacy is undiminished by cease fires and disarmament. A farmer’s field can be sown with landmines in a matter of hours, but it takes a human mine-clearing team one day to clear only 40 square meters of a minefield, according to Kimberley McCasland, director of the Marshall Legacy Institute’s Children Against Mines Program (CHAMPS).

There are millions of landmines in about 60 countries “silently waiting for someone to come upon them,” McCasland said. “They don’t care if it’s the heavy boot of a soldier, the paw of an animal, or a three year old child.” Tens of thousands of people, mostly children, are killed or maimed by landmines each year, and hundreds of thousands of animals are killed. Clearing minefields faster saves lives.

This is where the dogs come in. A trained mine detection dog can clear hundreds of square meters in a day. They can detect the odor of explosives at three meters. After smelling a mine, they work their way towards the source, then stop and point from about one meter away. A human deminer will arrive with a probe and gently lift the mine from the soil.

The Marshall Legacy Institute has placed over 800 mine detection dogs in 26 countries according to Perry Baltimore, the president of MLI. But this is an expensive endeavor. Each dog must undergo intense mine detection training that costs $20,000 per dog. In order to train more dogs, CHAMPS encourages schoolchildren to raise money across their state and pairs them with corporate sponsors. McCasland travels across the country and the world doing presentations and raising money to train more dogs.

She took the job after moving to Mount Vernon from Texas in 2004. But when she arrived here she wasn’t thinking about how to save children from getting their legs blown off by landmines. She wasn’t even thinking about finding a job. She was thinking about her daughter.

RACHEL MCCASLAND, 20, is microcephalic, a condition that makes her head undersized. She also has mild cerebral palsy, is blind in one eye, nearly deaf in one ear, and she has speech impairments because her throat was rebuilt twice. For most of her life she had a dog as a companion animal to keep an on eye her and go for help if she had any problems.

Kimberley McCasland wanted Rachel to attend the Pulley Career Center, a school located beside West Potomac High School that provides real-world job training to students with disabilities. “Everything we do is functional,” explained Employment and Transition Specialist Clem Castellano. Students don’t learn to read stories, they learn to read help-wanted ads.

The Pulley Center has about 100 students, ages 16 to 22, and 16 teachers. Students can learn to cook in a professional kitchen, learn to maintain cars in a garage, go to work cleaning hotels, build a house, landscape office buildings, or enter data for local businesses. The goal of the Pulley program is to give students practical skills to function in the world. Each student has an Individualized Education Program that sets realistic goals for their education.

While in Texas, McCasland heard about the program from a friend and knew she wanted her daughter there. McCasland had been divorced and was ready for a change. She had no plan for her move to Mount Vernon beyond enrolling her daughter in Pulley.

McCasland had a background in weapons and nuclear development for the army. She also had fundraising experience with Johnson and Johnson and experience with dogs. When she was approached by Baltimore, who is married to her best friend, she realized the job with CHAMPS was perfect.

NEARLY. The travel the job entailed job took McCasland away from her daughter, and it took Rachel away from school. Every time her mother flew to Texas or Massachusetts or Wyoming or Bosnia, Rachel had to leave the flower arrangements she was making in Pulley’s landscaping training and fly back to Texas to stay for weeks at a time with her father. “[The situation] was disruptive for her, disruptive for me,” said McCasland. She asked herself, “How can she have job if she’s got to be pulled to Dallas all the time?”

Meanwhile, McCasland was overwhelmed by the work required to make presentations across the country. She traveled at least one week a month, sometimes for three weeks in a row. She also had to put together fundraising kits to mail out all over the world. Plus she had a new dog.

When McCasland began working for CHAMPS, she insisted on adopting a demonstration mine detection dog for her presentations. McCasland had experience with dogs. She had trained Rachel’s second companion dog and had started a dog walking business in Texas. So McCasland flew to Somerset, Texas to take an eight-day and night dog handler’s course at Global Training Academy, which trains all of MLI’s demining dogs. When McCasland came home, she brought Rosa with her.

Rosa was a twelve-year old Belgian Malinois. She had retired after seven years of mine-sniffing in which she cleared nearly two million square meters of land. She worked in Croatia, Namibia, Cuba, Kosovo and Lebanon. She visited Bosnia for one year in 1996 and 1997 to work near Sarajevo.

Rosa was taking out mines at a time when Bosnians were being killed or wounded by them nearly every day. When McCasland visited Bosnia last year, a government official told her 1,284 children died or lost their limbs from landmines within three years after the war ended in 1995.

“They aimed at kids,” McCasland said. “They would plant a special little mine called a prom mine, spelled just like a dance but it’s not a dance.” The mine works on a trip wire. A slight touch makes it jump two and a half feet into the air. “It cuts kids in half,” McCasland said. “Rosa was there in the most dangerous year for children … they had no mine risk education. Kids were picking up these landmines and blowing their arms off.”

INTRODUCING Rosa to American schoolchildren was a vivid way to personify the fight to clean up minefields, but the work it required of McCasland was tremendous.

At one point last year, she had been on the road for three weeks. In ten days McCasland would have to leave for another two weeks, and Rachel would have to leave school again. Baltimore suggested an alternative: Rachel should travel with her mother and help take care of Rosa. The trip went perfectly.

“My boss kept saying, ‘That went so well. That went so well. We need to hire her. We need to put her on the payroll,’” McCasland said. So Rachel got on the payroll. She earned minimum wage to be Rosa’s caretaker.

Castellano and the Pulley Center staff are happy to see Rachel with a job, even though it means she spends long periods away from school and teachers. “Ms. McCasland came to me with the idea and I thought it was terrific,” Castellano said. “It’s meaningful experience that she’s getting … Even though there’s no teacher there, she’s getting those career skills and the social skills … Our focus is one hundred percent to have the students employed … not to be sitting at home, to be contributing.”

Rachel said that the opportunity to travel was her favorite part of the job. “All of them,” she said, when asked her favorite place to visit.

McCasland is happy for her daughter of course, but she’s happy for herself as well. “It’s such a help for me,” she said. “It’s so much stuff that I can’t do it all alone, and now everything’s getting done … Rachel just takes over. I can leave her and know that everything is secure and safe … She’ll get up at six in the morning and she’ll walk that dog, and the very last time that dog goes out at ten o’clock at night, it’s Rachel with her. She does everything.”

Baltimore said he believes Rachel is inspired by her employer’s effort to keep children from being mutilated by landmines. “She’s really dedicated to this because she knows how difficult it is for children with disabilities to get along in this world,” he said.

McCasland said that Anthony Lake, the chairman of MLI told her after seeing Rachel, “how incredible it is that a handicapped child is taking care of a dog that has kept so many children from being handicapped.”

Rosa also impressed people. She flew to California to receive the American Animal Hospital Association’s Canine Hero of the Year Award. She was also featured on the television station Animal Planet. But minutes before the program aired on May 31, Rosa died. A small tumor on her heart ruptured and she bled to death in McCasland’s arms.

The grief spread beyond Rosa’s family. “I have had hundreds of emails and cards and letters from people all over the world that have met her,” said McCasland. Rachel said she and her mother are looking forward to receiving a new dog by the end of the summer. There are two dogs under consideration for retirement to become demonstration dogs. One is sniffing mines in Afghanistan, the other in Eritrea.

“I’ll probably have to go to Texas and meet the dog,” McCasland said. “I’ll probably pick up Rachel and take her down too, because she’ll be working with the dog.”

MCCASLAND has taken one trip to see her dogs in action. She visited a minefield in Bihac, Bosnia in November. “I watched our dogs working,” she said. “It looked like Bihac had over 200 land mines in a field surrounding the village, beautiful farmland.”

She said there had been a team of two human deminers working on their hands and knees to clear the field. Experts estimated it would take them four years.

When the dogs arrived, they cleared 1500 square meters a day. The field was clear in three and a half weeks.

McCasland said that every day, a toothless old woman brought tea and cakes to the deminers. The field had killed her grandson as he tried to farm it. She was disappointed that the dogs were not allowed to take her cakes as well. As McCasland’s group was leaving Bihac for the last time, the woman ran out to them. She blew them kisses as they drove away.

McCasland is returning to Bihac in a few weeks. “I’ll see their harvest,” she said. “This is the first year in fourteen years that Bihac has been able to farm their land.” McCasland hopes that next year, Rachel will be with her.