A Student's Best Friend

Pupils at the Manof school are kids who use to flee from the police. Now, they are helping them catch criminals by training police dogs for the Public Security Ministry.

Trainer Arkady Shulman walks up to the kennels at the Manof boarding school. Don, a 7-month-old Belgian shepherd, goes wild with joy. He rocks his cage, jumps up to the roof and barks loudly.

"He is completely wild and will go to work for the Prisons Service," jokes Shulman. "And this is a more sophisticated type; he will work for the special forces unit of the police."

He points to Dock, another Belgian shepherd, who is in a nearby cage and watching the approach of the trainer in perfect silence and with a cautious and cunning smile. While most dogs tie their masters to them with a lead and make do with lives of leisure and pleasure, others must live a miserable wild dog's life. A visit to the kennels illuminates a middle ground: There are also dogs with a mission.

"It all started after September 11, 2001," says Prof. Yisrael Barak, the chief scientist of the Ministry for Public Security and the person responsible for the project. "The Americans began acquiring dogs in a hurry to identify explosives. As a result, the price of service dogs around the world skyrocketed. Israel found it too expensive so it built a kennel. On their first birthday, the dogs' training ends and they can join any ministry unit - the police, the Prisons Service, the special forces or the border police."

In 1999, an amateur kennel opened at the Manof boarding school near Acre for youth in distress. The school, which opened in 1975, aims to rehabilitate high-school dropouts and help them finish school. Some 180 students from the Ethiopian community and immigrants from the former Soviet Union study alongside veteran Israelis. About one-third were sent there by court order and have a probation officer assigned to them.

Uriel Bar-Maimon, who at the time was a pupil at the boarding school, joined the Israel Defense Forces and registered for a canine training course. Before the class, he served with the Border Police; in 2002, he was killed in action while fighting in Gaza. His mother, who died six months later, opened the kennels as a memorial to him.

Some 18 months ago, the school opened a professional kennel - with 100 dogs - to provide the ministry with dogs and the students with preparation for their matriculation examinations in animal sciences, with a specialization in dog training.

"The kennels operate under the close supervision of ministry professionals and the Israel Police. The pupils are partners in the process and learn how to train and instruct the dogs," says Yoram Hauser, who oversees the project on the school's behalf. "We often see students who in the past used to flee from the police and treat policemen with hostility learn to work with police representatives in training the dogs."

"Eight graduates of the school have joined Oketz and other IDF canine units, and one graduate is working as a dog trainer for the Prisons Service," says Hanan Pahmani, a police dog trainer with 25 years of experience. "We are considering a course where any student will be able to adopt a dog and continue with their dog to a dog-breeding unit in the army."

Israeli dogs in Iraq

The kennel's heart consists of 30 dogs that were carefully selected in Europe.

Shulman, the resident trainer at the boarding school, has more than 30 years' experience in the field and came to Israel from Russia some nine years ago.

"We went to various places in the world and chose thoroughbred dogs with certificates that showed they had excellent genetic qualities and had won beauty competitions - because beauty is important," he laughs.

The dogs are Belgian and German shepherds tailored to terror operations. After training, they can identify a suicide bomber in a crowd and neutralize him, and find explosives and drugs. Labrador retrievers can identify drugs and explosives, and terriers, despite their small size and unthreatening appearance, are effective and energetic at identifying drugs and explosives.

The breeding kennels have some 55 puppies who stay in a large garden full of games and training apparatuses. At 10 months to a year old, the dogs are transferred to Public Security Ministry units.

"Despite the professional training, not all the dogs are suitable for going into service," Hauser says. "If it turns out that the dog is not able to carry out the mission, he drops out and leads a life of 'idleness.' We make sure to find him a suitable home and good pension terms."

"Until now, police representatives traveled overseas, took 20 minutes to look the dogs over, bought the dogs, brought them back to Israel and then found, some of the time, that they had bought a 'lemon,'" Hauser adds. "Not all the dogs were suitable for the Israeli climate, for our work methods and the needs and challenges of the Israeli security situation. The dogs bred here undergo training from a young age tailored to our operational methods."

A recent series of articles in The Washington Post referred to the failure of the American fighting tactics in Iraq. An investigative report revealed that in 2004 an American Marine task force bought dogs from Britain and Israel to identify explosives in Iraq. When the Israeli-trained dogs arrived, they were able to understand orders only in Hebrew and not in English or Arabic. Public Securty Ministry trainers preferred not to comment on the report.

"We have a female that we breed that was imported from Germany. She speaks fluent German," Barak jokes. "All the students who work with her speak and train her in German."

No hard drugs during training

Meretz, a 3-month-old Labrador puppy, comes rushing into training. Youngsters are sitting at the side and watching Pahmani, who is hiding a ball in a training apparatus and instructing the pup to bring it to him. Meretz uses her sense of smell to find it. She runs to the ball, but for a moment forgets what her mission is and starts to run in another direction. A minute later, she realizes her mistake and starts to look for the ball, finds it and brings it to her trainer, who pats her lovingly.

"Of course, we cannot train them here to identify drugs like hashish, heroin and cocaine," Pahmani says. "This is a boarding school where youngsters are studying. But we train them to hone their skills as closely as possible, teaching them to work with materials in which drugs can be hidden - a newspaper, plastic, wood or iron - so future hiding places won't confuse them."

T., 17, gets the Belgian shepherd to run an obstacle course. He comes from a well-known family of criminals and was taken out of his home and sent to the boarding school at age 8.

"I wasn't able to succeed in other study frameworks," he says. "I was diagnosed as being dyslexic, with difficulties in reading and writing, and I didn't get help to overcome it. I didn't have any order in my life. I got up when I wanted to and did a lot of stupid things."

T. had a file with the police for breaking into homes.

"The file was closed, but it was reopened only because of my family name," he says. "When I came here, I had a negative attitude, but it changed very quickly. Only when I got here did I understand that I didn't want to continue in my family's path. I had the chance to remove the stigma of my family name. I had an agenda, I started to study, to do my matriculation exams and to learn to solve things in a different way than by violence and beating people." T. dreams of continuing his studies in dog training abroad.

N., 16, is the daughter of parents who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. She came to the school after time in a day center for delinquents. Her brother was a drug addict but recently underwent treatment. "All the attention was focused on him," she says. "So in order for them to notice me, I would disappear for a few days from home, cause problems at school, get up at 10 and wander the streets." The police opened a file for N.

"When I came to the boarding school, I fell in love with the place immediately," she says. "The scenery is pastoral and I have the feeling that everyone here is like me - all the children come from homes with problems. If I need to confide in someone, there is always someone here who will understand me."

N. chose to work with the dogs; since then, her studies and her relationship with her parents have improved. "All my joie de vivre returned. I have been here two years and I am managing and succeeding," she says. But something is eroding her love for the kennels.

"Everything is fine, but I have one small problem - I am more a cat person," she laughs. "I have a cat at home and I love it, so I can't see myself turning into a dog trainer."