By Trainer Samantha Lee of Valor K9 Academy – Boise
I grew up in the Sierra Nevada’s in a small town of 2,500 people and in the first 24 years of my life. I never left the west coast but I have always had a desire to travel. Through my pursuit of making dog training a career I have now gotten to travel all over the United States and even Canada to learn from other trainers.
In 2019, I was given the opportunity to travel overseas for the first time in my life to attend a 10-day seminar in South Africa and work with Anti-poaching K-9 units. These units are primarily dedicated to protecting the endangered black rhinoceros population. This seminar was organized to bring awareness to the war against poaching and to bring fresh eyes and ideas for the k9 teams and their training. I was one of four trainers total who travelled to attend the seminar. We all came from various backgrounds ranging from working dogs, hunting dogs, military dogs, law enforcement k9s, pet dogs and k9 fitness and nutrition.
These anti-poaching units are dedicating their lives to making a difference in the world by literally putting their lives at risk to protect and preserve the national park and the wild animals who live in it. They live at camp, away from their families for weeks at a time. Every single day, they patrol by foot and car with their k9’s and rotate small teams to camp for days at a time deep in the national park; all in an effort to preserve the integrity of the wildlife living in the park.
Their primary objectives are to keep an accurate count of the rhino so the teams track and locate them daily, as well as keep the rhinos away from the fence lines where they are vulnerable to poaching. We stayed at their main camp which had a bunk house for the handlers, several dog yards, a main building which housed the head handler, the kitchen and office. I stayed in a yurt style building by myself since I was the only female in camp.
They use various hound breeds such as Bloodhounds and Bavarian hounds for tracking and mainly Belgian Malinois for apprehension of poachers. One thing that I realized about dogs during this trip is that it’s amazing how they are able to adapt to environments; in this South African K-9 camp, these high drive Malinois and hounds are free. They run around the camp coexisting peacefully, they ride free in the back of the patrol trucks. They are regularly exercised off leash running – and even when large game is present the dogs could care less.
The thing about training dogs in the bush is that there are so many challenges unique to this continent such as the extreme weather, the dangerous wildlife and the rough terrain. The reason they use Hounds and Malinois is that both tracking and apprehension are physically taxing and with the challenges that South Africa presents, it’s too difficult for one dog to do both for prolonged periods of time.
How it works
So, what typically happens when there are incidents of poaching is that the poachers are on foot because they have to get through high security fencing in order to get to the game. The patrol teams will hear the gun fire and immediately start working on locating where the shots came from. Once they have isolated the area where the shots were fired, the hounds go to work tracking with their handler’s behind them on-foot. If they are able to track down the location of the poachers, then the Malinois team is deployed to apprehend and attack the poacher.
In the United States, most detection dogs are trained to detect a specific odor such as ammunition, drugs or humans in a controlled environment meaning training buildings, empty fields, old cars, etc. Throughout their training they are taught scent discrimination to proof the odor the dog is being taught to detect. Most of these k9’s are then used in specific scenarios such as building searches, neighborhood searches or car searches.
However, in South Africa, there are countless factors that can not be controlled. It is truly amazing to watch these dogs have to learn to discriminate human odor from hundreds of animal scents, remains, scat, etc. while tracking through the rough terrain in extreme weather to find the poachers. It is the high level of difficulty in training working k9’s for this job which inspired this training seminar. The director of the program wanted to bring in fresh eyes, so to speak, to create new training scenarios and help troubleshoot for their teams while also offering a once in a lifetime experience for American dog trainers.
A typical day
Every day of the training seminar, we would train early in the morning before it got too hot and then break to go on patrol drives and then train again later in the afternoon. My favorite part of training is that we were literally training in the bush (a common term for describing rural areas in Africa. We would drive to an open area and set up tracking and bite scenarios. Almost every day, we would have beautiful visitors observing our training, such as zebras and giraffe.
One day in particular though, we had visitors that we did not particularly want around. It was my turn to be the decoy aka: pretend poacher. I put on the full body bite suit and laid my track to where I was going to “hide.” So, here I am crouched down in the middle of the bush, waiting to be found by the dog. As I am sitting there all by myself, I started to panic as I realized I couldn’t see my own feet because the grass was taller than me which made me completely vulnerable. If a Puff-Adder (an extremely dangerous snake) wanted to creep up on me, I’d never see it coming.
It was then that I heard cackling. I don’t mean that all of the guys were making fun of me, I am talking about the terrifying sound of hyenas! Thanks to my ride-alongs during patrol, I had already learned that hyenas only cackle when they are nearby potential prey. So here I am in a Michelin man suit, alone waiting to either be attacked by a Malinois or eaten by hyenas. Luckily, the k9 team tracked me down just minutes later, I took the bite and was promptly told to strip out the suit quickly. We needed to run back to the trucks and get out of the area because where hyenas are present, often the pride of lions are too. This was just one instance of moments that made this trip truly once in a lifetime because where else would I ever get to experience training dogs where I could also be a snack for hyenas?!
The war against poaching
The war against poaching is all too common throughout the entire continent of Africa. We stayed at the main camp for the first 6 days of our trip and then made the half day trip to a private game reserve to work with a different anti-poaching k9 unit. This half day drive was one of my favorite days of the trip. We passed through many towns, stopped at local shops and ate local foods, saw tree and fruit farms; we stopped at this incredible lake that spanned as far as the eye could see and is very popular for its large population of hippos that reside in it! Our last stop was to God’s Window where locals believed you could speak to your lost loved ones. The beauty and magic that I felt there literally moved me to tears.
When we finally arrived at our final South African destination, I was surprised to find that we were staying at a hunter’s resort with beautiful cabins. The team we worked with there only uses Malinois because the private reserve had groomed terrain and was easily accessible by patrol truck so they did not have to do nearly as much tracking or foot patrol.
This reserve has a small population of black rhinos whom they had tagged with GPS locators. Each day, they utilize an antenna and tracking system to locate the areas that these rhinos were currently in and would then spend their day driving out to those locations to confirm and ensure each rhino was alive and healthy.
During my stay at this game reserve, I learned that many private game reserves have now taken up their own breeding programs to help build up the diminished populations of several species of animals including black rhinos. These are avid hunters and guides who are dedicated to keeping these herds strong and healthy to ensure their preservation for the future. Our resort hosts gave us a tour of their private breeding program which was incredible and so well done.
Every person I was fortunate enough to meet throughout this trip showed so much pride and knowledge of their history, the animals and specific herds and prides, nature, the local food, culture and more. I loved how much I learned from the locals and how infectious their way of life is. Over the course of this entire trip, I couldn’t escape the feeling that you truly live in the moment here. Days are long, time doesn’t matter and you must always be present and aware of your surroundings.
In just ten days, I experienced so much that left me in awe. From tracking with the dogs through the bush to being surrounded by a pride of lions circling our trucks while on patrol; we were charged by numerous bull elephants and also watched elephants work together to save their baby who fell in a watering hole. I witnessed so much wildlife while scouting for rhinos; from warthogs hauling across open spaces to seeing a pack of wild dogs during a game drive; we had monkeys try and steal our food, we drove past hundreds of water buffalo just feet from the truck. We ended each day watching the sun set and listened to the sounds of the wild every night as we drank African beer and BBQ’d whatever game was on the menu that evening.
Would I go back?
It has been a little over a year since I returned and to this day I still find it hard to put into words what an eye-opening experience it was but I can say that it was humbling to say the least. If I ever have the chance to visit South Africa again, I would go in a heartbeat. Dog training is so much more than just a job, a passion and a hobby of mine, it has also given me the opportunity to see parts of the world I may not have ever gotten too and I am forever grateful.
(Thank you, Samantha, for sharing your incredible experience with us!)