It is early in the morning inside the Delhi cantonment. The barracks, which house the temporary camps where the marching contingents for the Republic Day parade stay, have a new set of visitors – 24 labradors, 12 German shepherds and as many trainers.
Twenty six years after they last ‘marched’ down the Rajpath, the dog squad from the army’s Meerut-based Remount and Veterinary Corps centre and college is back. Over the last four months, the best among the best of Indian Army’s silent, four-legged warriors, were handpicked and made to practice with their handlers. “They share the burden of operations, especially when it comes to duties like Counter Insurgency/Counter Terrorism (CI/CT). So we thought it is time they share the spotlight too,” explained a senior army officer. The Indian Army has approximately 1200 dogs, primarily of the breeds mentioned above and are used in operations like sniffing out explosives, avalanche rescue in addition to CI/CT operations which have facets like assault, guarding, leading etc.
Unlike the other contingents where selection takes place on the basis of marching prowess of the personnel involved, the parameters here are different. “We need those men who can keep the dogs fully under control. Since dog behaviour is critical to the success of the show, how well the men march comes second. We have been practicing three times a day since the last four months,” said Captain Anurag Boruah from the RVC. Since dogs are known to not react favourably to the increased noise levels like what will prevail on Rajpath, there is practice for that too. Captain Boruah added, “We have been simulating the environment we will face at Rajpath, especially in terms of noise so that dogs do not panic or react differently.” If there was a gap between saying and doing, trainer Amrendra Kumar who handles ‘Kako’, a German shepherd, swore it hardly mattered. “The lesson we draw from our experience with these dogs is that if you befriend them well they whether it is the parade or a life-threatening mission, they will never let you down,” he said, as he patted Kako’s forehead.
It isn’t all about training though.
The army it maintains a file on each and every dog which serves as a member of the force. These 36 who’ve made it to the contingent, and nine more who are on the standby have had their records ‘checked up’. “Yes, their past behaviour matters. There is no taking chances at this stage,” explained an officer.
Career profile of a dog is determined by its operational performance. It also determines the age of retirement for them. Every six months, especially after the age of eight years, these dogs are sent for refresher courses where they are trained from the scratch. If there the trainers observe age catching up, the dog will be retired. “While in service, their transfers and postings are matters handled by none less than the army headquarters in New Delhi,” explained an officer.
The army, which espoused painless death for its canine warriors, earlier, has had a change of heart. Since the last three years, in Meerut, the army runs an old age home for its retired canine warriors. That is where natural death is allowed to catch up with them.
While the officers and men who are a part of the contingent will have a feather in their hat after participating in the parade at Rajpath, what is in it for the dogs?
Captain Rishi Sharma, also from the RVC replied, “All that a dog really requires and enjoys is company, good food and time to rest and believe me, all of it awaits them post the parade. And yes, some cookies too.”