Jul 27, 2023

Alberta pup heads to Ukraine to help with war effort by sniffing out explosives

An Alberta canine is putting his nose to good use.

Torch is a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois and a professionally trained explosives detection dog. In the fall, he will head to Ukraine to locate landmines and unexploded ordinances — explosives that did not go off or function as intended — in the conflict zone.

Torch was trained by Alberta K9, a Gull Lake, Alta., company that specializes in preparing dogs for roles in policing, personal protection and private security.

The dog's overseas trip is sponsored by an Edmonton-based charity, Firefighter Aid Ukraine. A dog with Torch's specialized skills would normally be valued at $25,000. But Alberta K9 is loaning Torch out for free to the charity.

"We just wanted to find a meaningful way to help out," said Matt LaPointe who co-owns Alberta K9.

Torch is a late bloomer and was born in 2019. One of his littermates, Marshall, started working with Edmonton Fire Rescue Services in 2021 as an ignitable liquids detection dog.

LaPointe said he and Kelsey LaPointe, his wife and co-owner, knew they had a perfectly good pooch sitting in the kennel, but were trying to find a match for Torch's personality.

"He's a very, very intense focused dog," He said. "And we figured with everything going on over in Ukraine, why don't we train him on explosives detection."

LISTEN | An Alberta dog heads to Ukraine to help save lives

With a new career plan, LaPointe got in touch with Firefighter Aid Ukraine, which also trains Ukrainian first responders and raises donations for firefighters.

Project director Kevin Royle said Torch is one of the more unique donations they've sent overseas.

"We've shipped over really high value equipment like X-ray machines and anesthesiologist machines," he said. "But to be able to ship over something like this, that is so so specialized … It's pretty incredible."

Dogs are trained to detect explosives through scent association. When they locate a certain smell, they alert their handler appropriately, which leads to a reward. For landmine detection, the scent is buried deep underground, and depending on the job — and the workplace — training can look a little different.

"There's a little bit of fine tuning," said LaPointe. For example, Torch was trained in both English and hand commands, to allow him to work silently.

Torch also gets a toy instead of food when he finds the smell of live explosives, and he has learned to back away from the site to avoid setting off whatever device he's found.

Torch will head to Ukraine in September with a handler. Firefighter Aid Ukraine is fundraising around $80,000 to get Torch and the team to Kyiv.

Ukraine has its own working dogs, but the program was based on the country's needs before the war. The number of landmines and unexploded bombs since the conflict started in 2022 has gone beyond what they can handle.

"This dog is going to help solve a lot of problems," Royle said. "It affects their economy, security, and obviously public safety. And it's estimated that for every year of conflict, you're looking at 10 years of de-mining. "

Torch will have an impact right away, he said.

More than a hundred specially-trained dogs have been sent around the world by Alberta K9 and Torch will be the first to go beyond North America.

The company already provides detection dogs for narcotics, firearms, mould and bed bugs. They also support Indigenous communities by providing detection canines for managing drug and alcohol crises.

LaPointe, who is Métis, says the ability to give back to communities through his dogs makes all the difference.

"We love being able to make a difference wherever we can," he said. "Dogs are a highly underutilized resource."

Digital associate producer

Clare Bonnyman is a producer and reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked across the country and has expertise in digital reporting, audio production and podcasting. Clare won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2019 for sports feature reporting. She focuses on stories about sound and community. You can reach her at [email protected].

LISTEN | An Alberta dog heads to Ukraine to help save lives