Monday, May 10, 2010

Stealth Paws, Training Dogs to Kill: In Tehelka magazine

Something I wrote for Tehelka. Read here or see below.

It takes a lot of hard work at this puppy farm to create the doggy equivalent of Rambo, says DEEPA BHASTHI

In a farm 100 km north of Bengaluru, the laws of puppyhood are being violated — dogs are being taught to be not cute. In this 21-acre facility called Stealth-Paws, 40-odd dogs are being trained to go against their natural inclination to be man’s best friend. Instead they are trained from the time they are five weeks old to become canine superheroes. At the farm they are taught systematically to assault and disarm criminals, to rescue people, to search for drugs and bombs.
Stealth-Paws started as something of a hobby four years ago for techies Balaji Venkataraman and Masood Ahmed. The dogs’ ferocity and intelligence comes at a standard 1000 euros each. Private security agencies from India, Europe, the US, the Middle East, and UK as well as the armies of China and Mexico all buy dogs from Stealth-Paws. Though the demand for these pedigreed dogs is booming, Venkataraman and Ahmed, who is the chief trainer, continue to think of the farm as a hobby. But it’s serious business all day long for the dogs. Half a dozen handlers train Dutch, Belgian and German Shepherds in special task operations.

Trained to perform under extreme stress to save human lives, these dogs are not your tail-wagging dogs waiting for a cuddle or a belly-scratch. When they are happy, they may grab at the mobile phone or wallet in your pocket, mistaking it for a ‘bite roll’ — a training toy — and playfully drag you along. The handler smiles almost indulgently but visitors cannot be blamed for stepping lightly around them. Of the three breeds, the Belgian, or ‘Mali’ dogs, are the meanest of the lot. Their ‘workability’ is not spoilt by generations of being pets. The German Shepherds are naturally affectionate, less ‘workable’ and come with a comparatively delicate health. “It is the difference between a fashion model and a daily wage earner,” says Ahmed wryly.

The dogs are constantly monitored for their physical and mental potential. “By the time they are 12 weeks old, we test the puppies and categorise them depending on their ability to handle stress, memory, agility, learning speed, attention span, problem solving capabilities, genetic makeup and sound sensitivity,” says Venkataraman. After this the dogs are ‘streamed’ — some trained to sniff and track and others for assault. “The best of the litter become multipurpose dogs. Some might drop out. The best of the best remain,” chips in Ahmed. Some of these elite dogs get trained in the most complex tasks — hunting out narcotics and explosives. The pups’ advanced education would give Lassi and other movie dogs an inferiority complex. They learn to track and sniff out criminals, maneuver and attack through fire, smoke, gun shots, bombs, over narrow planks, down steep ladders and in water.

Zippo, one of the elite Dutch Shepherds dog, gives a live demo. He leaps from the ground into the window of a bus, part of the training paraphernalia. Before that, he gingerly treads across a tricky 3-inch narrow plank, 20 feet above the ground, between climbing up and down ladders. Zippo slips once or twice, but egging him on is his handler Ishaq. Ishaq switches between curt commands and gentle ‘good boy’ and ‘it’s okay, go Zippo’ murmurs.

Another Mali, at a single command, leaps at the handler, who in a thick bite suit, doubles up as a decoy. Nothing will make the dog lose its grip on the decoy, till the handler says so; it is all about command and trust. Every dog has a separate handler — the dog will not take commands from anyone else. The handlers, on their part, do not force dogs to comply all the time. “They have their moods too,” shrugs Ishaq. Fed on a bones and raw food diet once a day the dogs stay lean, and undoubtedly, mean.

Zippo and his companions will travel far once they are through with classes. For now, it is just another hot summer day at the farm.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 19, Dated May 15, 2010

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