Dogs have long been part and parcel of the military and South Africa is no different with a specialist dog training facility coming into being as far back as 1964.
The Dog Training School in what was then Voortrekkerhoogte and is now Thaba Tshwane had its main aim to train dogs and handlers for mine detection work. The unit was also, according to retired lieutenant colonel Chris Oosthuizen, responsible for acquiring suitable dogs and researching canine diseases, nutrition and breeding. Dogs acquired for training were German shepherds. Dobermann pinschers, Labradors and border collies were found to be the best breeds and training could be as long as two years.
In 1979, the dog centre was moved to Bourke’s Luck in what is now Mpumalanga and four years later the SA Army’s dog and equestrian capabilities were combined into 12 SA Infantry Battalion. Dogs and infrastructure for these animals was moved to the control of what is now the SA Military Health Service with motorcycle and visual tracking capabilities transferred to the Infantry School outside Oudtshoorn.
In due course the landward arm of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) set up with the SA Army Specialised Infantry Capability (SAASIC) dog unit at Potchefstroom in the North West. Training in canine utilisation and distinct areas, such as patrol work, guarding and sentry work, detection and search and rescue is done at the unit.
As is the case with people, tactical and security dogs cannot be expected to be effective unless they are in peak physical condition. This means, Oosthuizen said, in addition to a correct feeding regime and medical care, dogs must be exercised “regularly, repeatedly and diligently”.
“Obstacles are an excellent medium as dogs will in all likelihood be required to overcome obstacles while on operational duty. It is thus necessary for the dog to learn – under orders and control – how to overcome obstacles.
“Like humans not all dogs are swimmers with some scared of water. Reluctance to get into water must be overcome by progressive training. While the dog is in the water it must be encouraged to take floating objects thrown by its handler. A gradual increase in distance and depth will usually see the dog swimming after the object without problems.”
According to Oosthuizen, obedience work is the benchmark for the dog handler’s skills with a spirited, happy and accurate performance by the dog working in unison with its handler demonstrating the skills of both.
Dogs are deployed on the border protection tasking, Operation Corona, as well as in detection and guarding duties at bases and other military facilities nationally. The number of working dogs deployed or those in training is not made public for security reasons.