Dogs of war

By Michelle Chen Jul 28, 2009

Relations between the U.S. military and the Iraqi people have been strained in the past, but the Pentagon recently scored an A-plus for cultural competency in its efforts to train Iraq’s young security force. In today’s perfunctory color piece on the occupation, All Things Considered reports on remarkable progress in the use of bomb-sniffing dogs by Iraqi police. U.S.-trained Iraqi dog handlers are now employing man’s best friend to root out explosives in public spaces. The program, which builds interspecies skills such as “loving the dog up,” will eventually grow to a legion of more than 100 canines and their handlers making Iraq’s streets safe from terror. But the American and Iraqi security forces must confront a cultural barrier:

Sniffer dogs are universally recognized as the most effective means of detecting explosives. But in Iraq, as in much of the Arab world, dogs are considered unclean. "We must help people understand about dogs, and showing that they can prevent bombings is a great way to change their image," says Iraqi police dog handler Salim Saeed Ahmed.

While handlers like Ahmed are able to put aside negative stereotypes of these furry partners, ingrained cultural beliefs may prove harder to shake for the rest of the country, despite taboo-breaking efforts. Especially since past experiences involving dogs and American troops have probably left the Iraqis with a rather unsavory impression of both. It was U.S. army personnel, after all, who decided that “fear of dogs and snakes appear to work nicely” as a tool to “break” Iraqi prisoners. Torture, dogs… every society has its stubborn taboos. But cultural standards are ever evolving. Images: Nishant Dahiya / NPR; AFP