'Pups For Peace' Defending Israeli Public, Group Says

July 7, 2008 - 8:15 PM

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Bombing-sniffing dog teams called 'Pups for Peace' are fulfilling their mission of defending the Israeli public against suicide bombers in on buses and elsewhere, the group's local founder said this week.

Pups for Peace (PFP), is a humanitarian organization that aims to reduce deaths and injuries from terror attacks by using explosive-detecting dogs to thwart terrorism, the group's website says.

In Jerusalem, the dogs -- identified by their green-colored harnesses -- work with their handlers, checking bus stops and other areas that have become favorite targets of suicide bombers.

During the last couple of weeks, a PFP team was actively involved in defending the public from terrorism, local founder Ronnie Lotan told CNSNews.com. Specific details of the incident are barred from publication, but it is clear that the dogs are involved in saving lives, he said.

In July, two teams of dogs were instrumental in foiling a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem cafe. The suicide bomber, who was also armed with a gun and prepared to shoot his way past the guard at the Caffit restaurant, instead turned around and went home. He was killed a few days later during an Israeli army attempt to arrest him.

Again, details of exactly how the dogs and their handlers were involved are being withheld, but Lotan said some of the credit goes to the PFP teams.

Dogs have been used for years by police and armies around the world in everything from search and rescue and recovery operations to tracking to explosives and drug detection.

But what makes the PFP program unique is the fact that the dogs and their handlers are patrolling the streets, defending the public transportation system and searching for potential trouble before it happens.

"Never before have dogs been used on a regular basis to defend civilians," said Lotan. "Police had dogs. Armies had dogs. No one ever took a dog in a door of a school or a door of a bus or of a shopping center...Our dogs work in the streets of Jerusalem 18 hours a day."

Suicide bombers often choose public buses and bus stops to carry out their attacks.

Had the dogs been on patrol in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva in August, the double suicide bus bombing in which 16 people were killed might not have happened, Lotan said.

PFP was the brainchild of Professor Glenn Yago, who runs the Milken Institute in California. He was inspired following the 2002 suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya on Passover eve of Passover, in which 29 people died.

Initially the dogs were trained in the U.S. but now several centers in Israel also provide training for the dogs and the handlers.

CNSNews.com visited the training center and kennel in central Israel on a day when the lively dogs were meeting their new handlers for the first time.

Shimon, a black and brown German shepherd, sniffed with great enthusiasm in several spots until he located the contraband material, marked the spot and received a reward (toys, not food) -- from his attentive handlers.

Using an innovative method of training, the dogs are taught to find any material that poses a threat to the public transportation system, Lotan said.

Although PFP is a private group, it works in conjunction with the police, who also certify the dogs. The dogs are tested regularly and their training continues even after they are working on the streets.

"We get the dogs at a mature age, about a year and a half old, and they come with basic knowledge, discipline and drive," said trainer Sivan Bitton. "We encourage them to play with toys like balls and puppy rolls. We use their drive for those toys for our purposes."

"We train the dogs and teach them the work itself, which is knowing the smell [and] knowing how to look for the smell," said trainer Donna Roblatt. "After we teach the dogs what to do, we get [the handlers] and teach them how to use the dogs."

According to the PFP website, scientists estimate that a dog's sense of smell is anywhere from 100 to 10 million times stronger than a human's.

Dogs can also discern between odors and detect a target odor - explosives - even when it is masked by something smelly.

But not every dog is suitable, said Michael Landshman who is in charge of securing dogs for the program. Commonly used breeds include German, Belgian and Dutch shepherds as well as Labradors.

But very few actually make the cut, said Landshman, who travels regularly to Europe in search of the right dogs. The dogs must be energetic, hard workers, focused and unafraid of city sights and sounds, he said.

Most of the trainers or handlers who are hired to work with the dogs have previous experience in this area -- many from their mandatory army service.

Bitton, 21, worked with police dogs during her army service. Even though she's getting paid for her work now, she said, she feels like she's doing something patriotic for her country.

Roblatt, 22, worked with search and rescue dogs during her army service and is thrilled to be able to continue working with them in a meaningful way in civilian life.

"There's nothing more fun than working with dogs. It's really satisfying," Roblatt said. "It's an interesting work and it's helping with the country and helping with finding bombers. Working and doing good - it's always a good thing."

Although Roblatt primarily works with the dogs in training, she has been out on the streets in Jerusalem.

"[It was] mostly practicing but also working with the people and seeing how people react to the dogs," Roblatt said. "It's sometimes difficult because people are scared [or] people come and pet the dog and...start asking questions... You have to get used to it and keep calm."

"Most of [the dogs] are really friendly but we don't want people on the streets coming and touching them because it disturbs their work and their concentration in their work," Bitton said.

There are currently seven teams of dogs and handlers working the streets of Jerusalem daily. Another six teams are training in the central region, with two or three teams ready to be sent out within a matter of days, Lotan said.

"We have an order...for 60 teams from the Jezreel Valley - Afula and Haifa - to Beersheva," said Lotan, mentioning cities that have been hit by suicide bombers. "But we still need more funds, we need more time and we need more dogs."

The cost of putting a dog on the street - from purchasing and shipping to training -- is about $10,000, said Lotan. A donor who purchases a dog can name him and visit him, he said.

While making donations to purchase ambulances or protective equipment or to aid victims of terrorism is good, Lotan added, this is probably the only project where patrons can contribute to preventing terrorism before it happens.

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