GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) — The land mine was buried just a few yards from the children. But they could neither see nor smell it. One wrong step and … BOOM!!!! … a crippling, perhaps fatal, explosion could kill or maim.
Up stepped a four-legged defender in a black mask. Could she intervene in time?
Within seconds, she had sniffed out the palm-sized explosive.
Then she quickly moved on to a much more interesting pastime: chowing down on her beloved toy ball.
In this case, the stakes were relatively low for Senna, a 7-year-old Belgian Malinois. She was demonstrating her olfactory prowess in finding a defused mine hidden under a napkin during a presentation Thursday to students at Parkway School. But the dog followed the same routine that she did when she was tracking down real explosives during a five-and-a-half year stint as a mine-detection dog in Afghanistan. Back then, she would locate the mines by picking up the gases emitted by the mines, which are imperceptible to the human nose.
Then, she would be duly rewarded with playtime with her ball, which would only happen after one of her successful digs.
“She wants to please me, and she wants to play with her ball, so it’s a game,” explained her owner Kimberly McCasland, vice president of children’s programs and victims assistance at The Marshall Legacy Institute (MLI), a nonprofit focused on land mine removal in war-afflicted countries.
Inspired by Senna’s example, Parkway students want to support those canine contributors. They are holding a fundraiser to sponsor a mine-detection dog through the Children Against Mines Program (CHAMPS), MLI’s educational outreach program. Fifth-graders participating in the school’s Kids With A Purpose community-service initiative are leading the fundraising drive.
“I understand why you want to learn so much, because you are wonderful citizens of the world,” Parkway Principal Patricia Allen told students during the presentation. “You recognize what a horrible thing it is that land mines even exist. But we have the power to do something about it.”
One dog can make a major difference. Senna cleared thousands of mines in Afghanistan, where she was used by the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force and the United Nations.
Compared to using long, pointed sticks or metal detectors — the two other main forms of land mine discovery — dogs like Senna can cover ground much more quickly.
“A manual miner would’ve spent maybe two hours getting to this area; that’s why the dogs are so valuable,” McCasland said. “One dog saves and impact tens of thousands of lives.”
Those dogs require months of training, and they cost about $25,000 to train and deploy in the field.
MLI has so far donated about 200 mine-sniffing dogs. In addition to Afghanistan, they have worked in countries such as Iraq, Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan.
Now retired from mine detecting, the Netherlands-born Senna serves as a canine ambassador for the CHAMPS program and lives with McCasland and her adult daughter, Rachel, who assists her mother during the presentations with Senna.
The Malinois’ sense of smell seems as sharp as ever. The only difference between the defused mines and real ones is that McCasland places smokeless gunpowder with the inert explosives, so Senna can locate them.
Students said seeing Senna in action is a major motivator for their fundraising.
“I think that it’s really good that all of these dogs are helping the kids that are in the countries where there are many land mines,” said fifth-grader Lilly Bjerke. “I would like to raise some more money for the dogs, so more kids will be safe.”
Fourth-grader Bianca Granitto was also moved to take action.
“It really inspired me, because now I think that all the dogs are more special than what people think of them,” she said. “It’s really cool that the dog saved all these people’s lives.”
Fourth-grader Samuel Swigart noted how much he had learned from the presentation.
“It’s really important to clear away all the mines,” he said. “The mines don’t care who steps on them. It could be a bus full of children going to a field trip. If it exploded, it would hurt a lot of them.”