On the Scent

Explosives, drugs and even paper money - these dogs can detect almost anything. Ofer Zidon spent a day with the dogs and handlers of the Israel Border Police and found a large family that knows how to get the job done

On the Scent

Master Sgt. Avital Tzuriel has been serving in the Israel Border Police for about 13 years. In the last 10 years, she has served as a K9 handler with the Jerusalem K9 unit. She was an animal lover since childhood and often picked up stray or injured animals and took them home. Avital's husband serves as a K9 handler with the Israel Prison Service, her brother served as a K9 handler with the IDF Oketz K9 unit and her father was a policeman, so the love of animals and security activity run in her blood. Avital has two young children who often ask her to bring Bone, her dog, home with her.

The Jerusalem K9 unit is the largest K9 unit of the Israel National Police and Border Police. The unit is made up of 44 dogs and 28 handlers, of whom 3 are women. The unit was established in 1995, during a period of frequent suicide bomber attacks, and the objective of its establishment was to provide an additional tool for the fight against terrorism and instill a sense of confidence in the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The dogs are divided according to several occupational specialties and are employed in routine security patrols in crowded places as well as in operational activities. All of the handlers receive the basic training of a Border Police trooper and serve at least 3 years as troopers in the Border Police companies. Only then they can take the K9 handler training course, a 6-month course held at the Israel National Police training school in Shefar'am. Every trooper is assigned a dog for the duration of his or her service term. The dogs arrive in the unit at the age of six months to one year and serve until they are 8 years old. At that time they are retired and given to foster families.

"Over the years the activity of the unit expanded from security operations to crime prevention activities and at the same time, the number of K9 occupational skills increased. Today, these occupational skills include drug dogs trained to detect drugs, money dogs trained to detect paper money, arms dogs trained to detect firearms and explosives, search dogs trained to search for missing persons in open areas and corpse dogs, trained to detect corpses", says 1st Sgt. Tamir Dalal, the unit commander. "A major share of our activity is carried out in cooperation with the Israel Police. We assist in raids on criminal activity centers, in finding arms, drugs and money cached by criminals according to intelligence information, in searching for missing persons, et al."

Owing to the basic combat training they receive, the troopers of the unit can switch within seconds from the mode of operation of a K9 handler taking part in a search to the mode of operation of a combat trooper fully capable of responding to a threat by criminals or terrorists. The three female handlers participate in all of the unit's activities, including long shifts, night duty and whatever else is required.

Unlike the personnel of the IDF Oketz K9 unit, in this unit all of the K9 handlers are career NCOs who have been serving with the unit for many years. The youngest handler has been with the unit for 5 years while the oldest-serving handler has been with the unit for 23 years. This contributes to the unit's professionalism and improves its performance. "On the social side, too, the unit is tightly integrated, like a family. We share one another's happy occasions and unhappy situations; we know one another's families and help one another when necessary", says Avital.

Tamir Dalal adds: "The unit is also involved in cooperative activities with the community. For example, we cooperate with the 'Zikhron Menachem' society that helps children with cancer. You should see the joy on the faces of those children when we come to visit with the dogs and let the children pet them, or when we perform a demonstration of our capabilities."

As this is the largest K9 unit, they also reinforce the other units deployed throughout the country. During the Mount Carmel forest fire they reinforced the northern unit and helped spot the bodies of the Prison Service troopers and the fireman killed in that disaster.

The unit has had numerous successes in the field of detecting drugs and arms. One example involves a case of drug smuggling in the Dead Sea area, where intelligence indicated that drugs had been stashed at a certain point. The dog that participated in that operation ran in a totally different direction and spotted the drugs far away from the point reported by the intelligence. During the investigation of the murder of infant Hodaya Kedem by her father in 2002, the unit employed search dogs to search the Jerusalem forest area, and as the case progressed they switched to using corpse dogs, trained in searching for corpses.

Another example was a search for drugs performed according to information received. After a thorough manual search was completed without any results, the dogs were let in and they pointed to a certain storeroom that had already been searched. Indeed, in an additional search several types of drugs were found stashed under massive amounts of refuse and dirt. In another case, the dogs let in to search for drugs found in the courtyard of the target house a cache containing an explosive charge, ready for use.

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