Young Women Challenge Gender Stereotypes as Police Dog Handlers in Sri Lanka


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Sri Lanka

Last year, the Police Kennels division increased the number of women it trained as dog handlers by more than 50 percent.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Jess, a 2-year-old cocker spaniel, follows the scent of narcotics along the ground during a training exercise at the headquarters of the Sri Lanka Police Kennels division.

She sniffs and scratches the soil, then signals to her handler by digging and pawing at the spot. She wags her tail as her handler uncovers a plastic parcel containing 50 grams of narcotics.

Her handler is Weerasekara Mudiyanselage Charika Sadamali, a 24-year-old police constable who is challenging gender stereotypes in the Sri Lanka Police Kennels division. Last year, Sadamali became one of six women in their 20s to join a team of nearly 250 male dog handlers.

Jess, who has a silky, white coat with black spots, sharp eyes and long ears, sits near Sadamali at the division’s headquarters in Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka. She gazes up at Sadamali proudly until she rewards her with a smile and a hug.

“Good girl,” Sadamali says.

Jess and Sadamali are usually stationed in the Police Kennels unit in Monaragala, a district in southeastern Sri Lanka. But they are in Kandy, the division’s main training base, for a special month-long course.

Sadamali started off doing administrative work for the Sri Lanka Police in 2009 before receiving the opportunity to become a handler in December 2011. Sadamali is Jess’ first handler, and Jess is Sadamali’s first police dog.

“I am so proud of her,” Sadamali boasts.

She started handling Jess in January 2012 for six months of basic training, followed by a three-month narcotics training. During basic training, dog handlers form a bond with the dogs by cleaning their cages and grooming them.

“I used to feed her with my hands,” Sadamali says, patting Jess’ head. “She still likes that.”

Sadamali says she takes a compassionate approach to handling Jess.

“It is love and kindness that make Jess perform well,” she says. “I have never scolded her and punished her. She is such an obedient and adorable dog. When I am here, she is like my shadow.”Sadamali says Jess becomes restless and doesn’t eat or leave her cage when Sadamali goes on holidays.

“When I return, she barks, runs, jumps and dances happily, and I have to hug and keep her on my lap for some time until she feels my warmth,” Sadamali says, as the dog licks her leg. “Jess is mine.”

This bond makes Jess a loyal worker.

“It is easy to work with Jess,” Sadamali says. “She responds to all my commands. To me, she is one of my best friends. She is a very sensitive dog. I plan to train her well.”

Their strong working relationship reaps results on the job, Sadamali says. During the last three months, Jess helped to nab 10 narcotic smugglers in Monaragala.

“I feel safe and protected when Jess is there by my side,” Sadamali says.

Police dog handling is traditionally a male-dominated field in Sri Lanka, but senior police officers are behind the push to recruit more young women. They cite women’s abilities to foster stronger bonds with their dogs. This bond leads to more effective investigations, and the new, young recruits are showing more independence in pursuing cases alone.

The Sri Lanka Police established the first Police Kennels unit in Colombo in 1948, says Superintendent Sisira Weerakoon, the director of the Police Kennels division. The unit shifted to Kandy in 1949 because it’s home to Sri Lanka’s only institution for training veterinary surgeons and has a cooler climate for dogs. The unit became a division in 1990 and trained its first female handler in 1994.

But until 2011, the division had trained only 11 female police officers as dog handlers, Weerakoon says. There are 241 male dog handlers in the division. Six young female officers, including Sadamali, constituted the biggest challenge to this gender inequality when they became handlers in 2012.

Handling police dogs is a male-dominated field, Weerakoon says. But this is changing.

“There is a demand among young female police officers to become dog handlers,” Weerakoon says. “And I have plans to popularize dog handling among female officers more, as they are doing a wonderful job.”

Weerakoon says he was the first officer to recommend training women to be dog handlers. The division approved his proposal and hired the first female dog trainer in 1994: Renuka Rajapaksha, then a police constable.

When Rajapaksha first transferred to the Police Kennels division in Kandy to work as an office clerk, she says she saw the dogs and their handlers on the training grounds from her window. This inspired her to talk to her superiors about becoming a dog handler.

“When I was working at the office, what I felt was it would facilitate my work if I learn more about dogs,” says Rajapaksha, now a police sergeant at division headquarters.

She first trained an old police dog, a Labrador retriever named Tobby, as a crime detective dog. They tracked criminals in the Kandy district for more than two years.

Rajapaksha then trained a well-built German shepherd named Max for explosive detection. They patrolled historical sites in Kandy city targeted by the now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the armed group that was at war with the government for nearly three decades.

“He is very sharp and was able to respond even to my facial expressions,” says Rajapaksha, who worked with Max for more than six years. “They are better than human beings and easy to work with. They are very loyal to the masters.”

Rajapaksha says her colleagues in the Police Kennels division used to think that a “fragile” female could not handle strong dogs like German shepherds.

“But I proved it and also trained three female constables as dog handlers,” Rajapaksha says. “They proved their capabilities by competing with their male counterparts. I am happy.”

Kumari Dissanayake, a woman police sergeant with the Police Kennels division, worked as a dog handler since 2009 before becoming an instructor for handlers. She says she is happy to see more female officers applying to become dog handlers.

“It is a respectable duty for a female police officer,” Dissanayake says.

Both dogs and handlers need to pass a test for their positions, Weerakoon says. The division tests dogs for 22 abilities, including trainability, retrieving skills and hunting prowess. But it tests handlers for just two abilities: voice and emotion.

“The handler needs to have a good, commanding voice,” Weerakoon says. “It is essential for them to have a feeling for dogs to understand each other and also to create a thick bond between the two to perform well.”

Weerakoon says that women can be more effective handlers because they build a stronger bond with their dogs than their male counterparts do.

“This makes the training process easy and effective,” he says, adding that dogs and their handlers become best friends. “They love and trust each other very well.”

Rajapaksha says a handler’s love is the main ingredient that makes a dog a fine detective. She compares handling a dog to looking after a child.

“You need to give lots of love to your dog,” she says.

Dissanayake, the mother of a teenage daughter, says that the dogs reciprocate this love.

“To me, dogs are better than our own children,” Dissanayake says. “Dogs teach us love and kindness. They respond well to handlers’ facial expressions. When handling a dog, you can forget all your problems and feel relaxed.”

This bond results in success on the job. Weerakoon says female dog handlers have proven their dedication and efficiency by the detection records of the dogs they train.

During 2012, the division’s 247 dogs participated in 1,486 crime detections, 13,038 explosive checks and 761 narcotic detections, according to division records.

The one weakness with the female dog handlers, though, is that many are not comfortable patrolling with their dog without another human partner, Weerakoon says.

“They are capable in handling any case but still reluctant to go alone for detections,” Weerakoon says. “They accompany a male officer when conducting an investigation.”

But he says that the new female dog handlers are showing more courage and capacity in handling detections independently.

Jeewani Somaratne, a police constable, is the latest addition to the female dog handlers. She says she built a rapport with her cocker spaniel, Lady, during her six-month basic training, which she began in mid-2012. She will train Lady for narcotic detection soon.

“I am confident I can train my dog well,” Somaratne says.