Paw patrol

Nepal’s police service owes a great deal to their four-legged members, whose assistance in various operations has proven invaluable

The morning of December 12, Assistant Sub-Inspector Chandra Bir Chhetri had just woken up when he received a call informing him that a prisoner had escaped from the Central Jail in Sundhara. The prison officials had requested a dog to track down the runaway and the officers at the Central Dog Department in Maharajgunj had decided to use Jumbo, Chhetri’s dog.

Together with Jumbo and another German Shepherd named Rony, Chhetri left for Sundhara. Once there, as Rony watched, the four-year-old heavily built Jumbo sniffed for the escapee’s scent in his bed and belongings. Following the scent took the dog and Chhetri to a sewage drain at the far end of the jail, right under a sentry post. The cement slab covering the drain seemed untouched, but there was a tiny hole on the side, as if the structure had caved in through neglect. Jumbo started scraping by the side of the hole.

The policemen around lifted the slab and took a look at the drainage. The metal rods on either side of the manhole put in place to prevent inmates from escaping (and one inmate did get stuck in between the rods once) had corroded into paper. Inside, the culvert was big enough for a man to bend and walk through but the stench was overwhelming. Prison officials at first wanted Jumbo to get inside and resume tracking, but then decided that it was impossible for a convict, no matter how determined to escape, to have tolerated the odour and moved on. Chhetri returned to Maharajgunj with the dogs and a red-alert notice was put on the escaped prisoner.

Three days later, the convict was arrested at the Raxual border. And lo, he had indeed crawled through the culvert for seven hours before finding an exit near the office of livestock development in Teku, around 250 metres away from the jail.

“If we had not doubted Jumbo, we might have caught the convict sooner,” says Chhetri. But, as he adds, although the dogs’ service is invaluable in police work, the appreciation often comes only with success. “Because the dogs can’t talk. Jumbo can’t tell me whether he’s confused one scent for another. He is in a man’s world doing a man’s job and we should understand that it is tough for him,” says Chhetri.

The bond between Jumbo and Chhetri, however, runs deeper than that of just colleagues. Chhetri, although officially called Jumbo’s ‘handler’, is more of a father to the dog. Jumbo was a mere three-month-old pup when Chhetri started giving him obedience and stool training. Chhetri even picked the name ‘Jumbo’ for him, which turned out to be accurate as the pup grew up to be one of the largest dogs in the centre, which houses 40 other canines. Jumbo is part of Chhetri’s family and before him there were Sony, Shilpa and Junu, all tracker dogs.

More than being just family members, colleagues or rent payers, these dogs, in fact, are Chhetri’s saviours. Chhetri joined the police force in 1999, smack in the middle of the conflict. He was posted in Lamjung then, with regular patrols a feature of duty and a source of anxiety. Sometimes landmines would explode before he reached them and sometimes after he crossed them. “That was God’s mistake,” laughs Chhetri, a mistake he knew God could sooner or later rectify. Fortunately, for Chhetri, he got transferred to the dog training centre a year later.

Since then, Chhetri has had a great time working with dogs, tracking down perpetrators, sniffing out drugs and explosives or, more fun, appearing in movies. Sony and Junu have had cameos and sometimes lead supporting roles in about a dozen Nepali movies, such as Takdir, Antya, Khalnayak, Faisala and Balwan. Sadly, while Sony had to retire after giving birth to future police aides, Junu and Shilpa died when they were only five years old. “One day, they looked fine and the next—they must have sniffed something poisonous—they just went listless and shut down,” remembers Chhetri. “It is one of the most painful things to see them die, especially when you don’t see it coming.”

Even when they are alive, there do arise painful moments. Because the Maharajgunj facility is short of handlers (only 42 when they should have at least the double the number) and because the whole country is short of police dogs (only 65 in total), the dogs in Maharajgunj have to be flown to different regions without their official handlers. Jumbo, so far, has been lucky, in that only Chhetri accompanies him to rescue and tracking missions.

But Bush, a seven-year-old German Shepherd, had to spend five years in Dharan, without Sub-Inspector Lal Bahadur Tamang, the tracker’s official handler. It takes around a month before a dog can trust a new associate. “Imagine the separation anxiety Bush must have gone through, first without Tamang sir and now without the handler in Dharan. All that confusion and psychological torment just because we don’t have two handlers per dog,” says Chhetri.

Monsoon is equally torturous for dogs and handlers in Maharajgunj. When the rain comes down, the wide expanse right next to the kennels, where the dogs exercise and carry out their routine training, remains waterlogged. Forty-one dogs then have to be cramped into an area the size of a basketball court. “The dogs need their exercise. We just have to be creative,” says Deputy Superint-endent of Police Pramod Raj Bhatta.

Despite their hard work, any evidence the dogs unearth cannot be presented to court. Recently in Thankot, a wife and her lover had murdered her husband. Before the arrests, Rony was at the crime scene sniffing the khuda, the weapon used to murder the man. He led the police to a house in a nearby village and kept encircling a bed, which turned out to belong to the lover. After the arrest and subsequent enquiries, the lover confessed to the crime. “It makes sense that his confession, or that of the jail breaker’s in the Sundhara episode, matters the most in court because dogs do make mistakes, but somewhere it has to be recognised that the dog has been invaluable in the arrests and re-arrests,” says Chhetri.

On Tuesday, a dog named Rescue rendered a similar service in tracking down a dead engineer following a landslide in Rasuwa. The man had been buried for almost five days and no one could locate him because the mound of rubble was a mountain and any use of a dozer would have just kick-started another landslide.

The legal system might dismiss Rescue and Jumbo’s sniffing prowess in rescue and tracking missions, but the handlers don’t. Jumbo always receives a loving pat after a job well done. It used to be pieces of meat and dog food before, but now the bond is so strong, a caress is enough. The biggest treat, however, comes on the day of Kukur Tihar. Forty-one dogs in the training field covered in red powder and marigold garlands, eating their favourite cuisine off their plates. “It’s just a special way of letting them know that we value them,” says Chhetri.

Published: 01-02-2014, The Kathmandu Post