An Iraqi police officer and his dog help maintain security at Shaab stadium in Baghdad ahead of a soccer match between the Iraqi and Palestinian teams on July 13.
An Iraqi police officer and his dog help maintain security at Shaab stadium in Baghdad ahead of a soccer match between the Iraqi and Palestinian teams on July 13. Nishant Dahiya/NPR
An Iraqi police officer in the Iraqi National Canine Program in Baghdad stands with his dog. (The names of the officer and the dog have been withheld for security reasons.) The program is slated to expand to include 100 dogs and their handlers.
An Iraqi police officer in the Iraqi National Canine Program in Baghdad stands with his dog. (The names of the officer and the dog have been withheld for security reasons.) The program is slated to expand to include 100 dogs and their handlers. Nishant Dahiya/NPR
As U.S. combat troops begin a gradual withdrawal from Iraq, they continue to train and advise Iraqi forces, which are increasingly responsible for maintaining security. But one of the most useful security tools is a hard one for Iraqis to accept — not because of technical difficulty, but because of a cultural taboo.
Sniffer dogs are universally recognized as the most effective means of detecting explosives. But in Iraq, as in much of the Arab world, dogs are considered unclean.
"We must help people understand about dogs, and showing that they can prevent bombings is a great way to change their image," says Iraqi police dog handler Salim Saeed Ahmed.
Iraq has been trying to open itself up to the world again, but security is the biggest obstacle keeping visitors away. Earlier this month, Iraq hosted its first international soccer match — against the Palestinian team.
Ahmed and his Belgian shepherd, Chico, ran up and down the stands at Baghdad's Shaab stadium hours before the game, making sure no explosive materials had been planted there. No bombs were found and the game went on as planned, with the Iraqi team winning 4-0.
Ahmed has been a dog handler for 13 years, since the Iraqi canine program was tiny. Chico is a more recent arrival, one of dozens of sniffer dogs provided by the United States. Ahmed just returned from a two-month course in North Carolina, which he says helped him hone his teaching skills.
Now, he is committed to educating a new generation of Iraqi dog handlers at the Baghdad Police College, where he teaches.
The first step, he says, is harmony with the dog. It starts with caring for the dog — combing it and washing it — tasks that most people in Iraq would consider filthy.
But Ahmed says that without forming this bond, it's impossible to be an effective handler. One of his American advisers, Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Meier, agrees.
"The greatest tool you have in your inventory when working with dogs is love. A lot of dogs, that's what they work for, just your affection," Meier says. "Some of the people who have shown up are willing to play with the dog but they are not willing to go to the next step and really love the dog up. We've shown them that when they do that, they get better response from the dog."
Meier, based at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, is on his third deployment to Iraq, and he says he loves his job here. Still, the trip hasn't been easy. Meier deployed with Kevin, his canine partner of 4 1/2 years. The dog turned 9 in February, and then died suddenly of cancer two months later. Meier was given the option of going home.
"Kevin, he was a worker; he was my best friend and a worker. That's why I decided to stay. Like, 'Hey, if you've got another job for me, I've got no reason to speed home anymore, like my reason's gone, you know,' " he says.
Meier is married and says he would love to see his wife, "but I've come over here for a job. Find me another job," he says.
So Meier took a job training Iraqi handlers.
The program Meier and Ahmed teach is slated to grow to include more than100 dogs and their handlers.
Meier says the Iraqi policemen in the canine program are a self-selected bunch. They volunteer for the task force even though it offers no extra pay and is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.
And the Iraqis in the program agree that using sniffer dogs is the best way to protect Iraqi civilians from car bombs and suicide attacks, Meier says.
"It's the greatest tool you have; you cannot fool a dog. There's nothing you can do to trick a dog. The only thing you can trick is maybe the handler, but you aren't tricking the dog," he says.