The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, December 06, 2005



For many Indonesian Muslims travelling abroad, concern over deep vein thrombosis or lost luggage barely features. The major worry comes when they arrive in Western airports and suffer the sniffer dog ordeal, as customs canines paw passengers’ bags, salivate over skirt hems and drool into trouser cuffs.

Dogs are widely used by security agencies overseas but seldom seen in Indonesia where the animals are considered unclean. But the East Java police run a pack, and most handlers are Muslims. Duncan Graham reports:

If you’ve ever doubted the old joke about pooch lovers who take on their animal’s features, a visit to the police dog squad in Surabaya will convince you otherwise.

The kennels are near the big bus terminal of Bungurasih, but meeting their lodgers it’s clear this hound home should be called The Baskervilles.

It’s a job to tell who is the scariest – the snarling satanic Rottweilers or their grim no-nonsense handlers clad in Ninja-black and red. It’s Fang and Fang – take your pick.

Certainly any street protester thinking of giving authority the finger would make a rapid reassessment when confronted by a two or four-legged member of Polda’s Unit K9, also known as Satwa (fauna).

He’d probably be left digitless after the encounter, and Brutus would still be waiting for his share.

No wonder it took just two dogs to pacify a mob of Malang soccer hoons who thought disrupting traffic was a clever way to celebrate their team’s recent victory against Jakarta.

A couple of growls from the handlers plus some lip-licking by the spring-loaded muscle-packs straining at the end of their fraying leashes and even the most brainless bonek (hooligan) turns into an upright citizen. That’s because Indonesians fear dogs, according to Captain Tri Atmulyanto, K9’s senior vet and unit boss.

“They’re also terrified of getting rabies if bitten,” he said. “Fortunately few know that rabies doesn’t exist in East Java and all our dogs are vaccinated against disease. Dogs are very effective here for crowd control.”

K9 is a pun on ‘canine’, though most locals think it’s a sinister code. The unit has 27 handlers and 22 dogs, Rottweilers, Dobermans, German Shepherds (also known as Alsatians), Golden Retrievers and Labradors. The last two are drug detectors; the others are used as crim-catchers and to scare the pants off the lawless. This is the real Fear Factor.

The squad is particularly short of bomb dogs since their last explosives expert died (of old age, not shrapnel) and is anxiously waiting for replacements from Jakarta.

But good dogs are hard to find. They must be at least a year old, and preferably female; bitches are less prone to be diverted by the scent of a sister on heat. Only one per cent of those with potential actually has the nose for the job and can make it to the front rank.

It’s the same with the handlers; many are called but few are chosen. Recruits are sent to Jakarta for training; only the exceptionally dogged are able to bond successfully with their charge to become a coordinated and formidable team.

The squad is on constant standby and can be sent anywhere in the province when an emergency arises. However they have only one roadworthy vehicle designed for dog transport.

Four of the handlers are Christian – a faith with no rules against close contact with Man’s Best Friend. They include Alexander Ubwaria, originally from Ambon. He’s been with K9 for 25 years and is the longest serving officer. Two handlers are Hindu and the rest Muslim.

“The Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council) has pronounced a qulbul mullam edict which means we can work with dogs,” said Captain Tri.

“Dogs were trained to guard flocks in ancient times so we’ve been told we can use them if it’s for the benefit of society.

“Although Muslims are supposed to clean their hands seven times after touching a dog’s saliva we’re allowed to wash only once using detergent. Soap wasn’t available centuries ago so the extra washing was necessary in those days.”

All the handlers are men. In an explanation bound to make feminists bare their teeth, Captain Tri said women weren’t suitable because their menstrual periods distracted the animals.

That ‘problem’ doesn’t seem to arise in Australia where female quarantine officers lead floppy-eared Beagles into airport luggage halls to stuff wet snouts into passengers’ packs. The main difficulty is stopping people patting these cute scent-detectors, usually dressed in dinky matinee jackets, as they waddle round the baggage carousel exercising their narcotic noses.

Should they snort a cache of cocaine they just sit alongside the drug mule, wag their jolly tails, look up at the offender and give a doggy grin. Understandably this is seldom returned.

Apart from the religious issues, the other significant problem at K9 is climate. The thinking breeds like Labradors tend to be longhaired and don’t enjoy the heat.

The shorthaired varieties like Dobermans can tolerate the tropics. But their heads are as thick as their shoulders; they’re prone to bite first and ask questions later.

So the refined retrievers soon get dog-tired and need regular replacements. These come from private breeders in the cool hill towns outside Surabaya.

Captain Tri wants to get his leash around the neck of a few Belgian Shepherds. These are supposed to combine Einstein-level IQ, sensitive noses, jaws which can crunch femurs and a short coat.

Although Javanese tends to be the first language of most Surabayans the K9 Unit insists on giving commands in quality Indonesian and English. This really foxes monolingual delinquents who quit school early.

Did the officer shout: “Rip his throat out!” or is he just asking Nero if he’d like: “A kip and time out?” Either way, when the K9 lads and their mates show up it’s best to shoot through. Fast.

(First published in The Jakarta Post Tuesday 6 December 2005)