Saturday, March 12, 2011

'Aspins' Trained for Bomb Sniffing


EVERY day at 6:30 a.m., Pacman goes to his training area for a 30-minute run. Egged on by his trainer, he goes through his morning routine with the focus and determination of a top-seeded athlete. But this Pacman doesn’t spar with his coach. This Pacman chases his trainer around instead.
Pacman the puppy is bound for stardom, just like world-renowned
boxer Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao. And Pacman the puppy may never know it, but in the future, human lives will depend on him.
Pacman the puppy is one of five aspins or asong pinoy (native Filipino dog) at present undergoing puppy training so that, in a year’s time, he could sniff bombs and narcotics in passenger ships and ports. He is one of 90 dogs in the kennel of the Philippine Coast Guard: Forty of them are under training, while the rest will undergo screening before starting doggie school next month.
The PCG, an armed and uniformed service attached to the Department of Transportation and Communications, is tasked with securing sea-going public transport vehicles like ships and ferry boats. Part of its job is detecting explosives and narcotics for which it used to procure foreign breeds like the German Shepherd, Labrador, Belgian Malinois and Golden Retriever.
But since budgetary constraints do not allow the purchase of these expensive breeds, PCG personnel have resorted to breeding and training their own and accepting donated canines. The only budget allotted is about P5,000 spent monthly on each dog for food and other needs. The cheaper table food is not an option because the dogs might go after provisions in passengers’ bags.
Native Filipino dogs were never considered before for security work because they are “independent, survivors and can be mean if feral” or left abandoned in the streets, said Lieutenant Commander Famela Aspuria, veterinarian of PCG’s K9 unit.
But experience gained from the training of mixed breeds told them it just might work.
“Intelligence is not based on breed. There are mixed breed and native dogs that are intelligent,” Aspuria said.
The training of aspins is the brainchild of PCG Admiral Wilfredo Tamayo and PCG K9 Unit Commander Allen Dalangin, who keeps 20 dogs at home.
“The commandant is under pressure to provide 200 dogs for ports all over the country and the idea to train the aspins came up during several discussions,” Dalangin recalls.
Seventy-two active working dogs are now deployed with their handlers in 30 K9 detachments along the nautical highways and ports in the country’s primary destination spots. K9 teams also check the vessels plying the Pasig River route as they enter the Malacanang area.
Native dogs, the PCG top brass thought, would be easier to feed and maintain. They would be more resistant to local diseases and are used to tropical weather. Small dogs would also be able to enter cramped spaces like the cargo compartments of buses on board sea vessels.
As luck would have it, the petty-officer-in-charge of the PCG detachment in South Harbor Manila had adopted and raised a native female puppy abandoned by a Superferry passenger three years ago. The passenger had to leave the pup behind because he had no quarantine clearance to bring her to the Visayas.
The dog, named Azumi after the lead character in a Japanese manga series who happened to be a young woman trained as an assassin, is the mother of the five PCG pups. Their father, according to Dalangin, was a stray dog, known in Filipino as askal (short for asong kalye), roaming the area.
After they were weaned off their mother’s milk, the five pups were taken to start training. A few days ago, mother and babies had a happy reunion at the base. In two weeks, the puppies will join 35 other dogs who will pass the screening test and together they will comprise “Class 7” of the K9 unit.
The more refined among the Class 7 dogs will be taught to sit when they find explosives, while the rest will learn to scratch at containers hiding illegal substances. And the only reward they will seek is their handler’s praise and pat on the head.
Azumi’s pups are all named after Filipino celebrities who have hit it big overseas. Four-month-old Pacman and siblings Manny and Pacquiao are all named after the world’s best pound-for- pound boxing champ, another brother Arnel after Arnel Pineda of the American band Journey, and only sister Charice after Charice Pempengco, now a guest star on the hit American TV series “Glee.”
Oblivious to the curious eyes of onlookers, the fat and short-haired young canines carry on with their half-hour daily puppy training, which is actually more play than work. They need no second prodding as they make a mad dash for a plain red rubber ball that their trainer swings and bounces around.
The trainer makes it more exciting for them by uttering commands in an encouraging tone and praising the ones that manage to grab the ball with their teeth and hang on to it. Their level of “ball drive” will indicate their potential as bomb or narcotics sniffers.
Four months from now, this harmless ball and others like it will be laced with the odor of bomb components and illegal drugs like opium, hashish, marijuana, shabu and heroin to sensitize the dogs’ noses to their smell.
“We are not breed-conscious,” Aspuria said. “Mixed breeds perform just as well.”
Cola, for instance, is a black, white and brown Beagle and aspin mix. She’s barely 8 months old. Donated only a month ago, she is still in the conditioning phase but has constantly surprised her handler with her amazing ability to find at first try the ball hidden under one of the overturned pots, or “pot search” in Coast Guard parlance.
Cola’s owner donated her to the PCG because he thought she had special skills that could be tapped. Back home, she would steal his socks, hide them and then retrieve them for him.
The K9 unit is rooting for Cola. But if she doesn’t make the grade, then she’ll just be sent back home or maybe given a second chance. Flunkers are allowed to go through another year of dog schooling, and if they don’t make it the second time, they are either sent back to their owners or adopted by PCG officers.
But for now, Coast Guard personnel are letting the puppies be puppies. They eat puppy kibble three times and play twice a day. The adult canines, on the other hand, are fed twice daily.
“I’m still adjusting to the aspin puppies because they behave differently from the foreign breed pups. But looking for their potential is a challenge for me,” Seaman 2nd Class Ryan Philip Ventura, trainer of the pups, confides. “It’s good to train our native breed so we can show people what they can do.”
Dalangin, meantime, has no second thoughts about the project he has initiated. He is convinced that like their namesakes, the aspins will do their country proud. “We just have to start them off at an early age,” he stated.

Published in The Philippine Star Sept. 21, 2010 and other Manila newspapers (Manila Times, Malaya, etc.)
and other sites.

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