The dog kindergarten is located in a military camp on the outskirts of Mexico City.
In this, the Canine Production Center of the Mexican Army and Air Force, the puppies that will become rescue dogs or drug and explosive sniffers receive their basic training. Here they are born and spend their first four months, when they are sent to different military units around the country to receive specialized training.
Founded in 1998, the center breeds 300 Belgian Malinois puppies a year. A while ago I also had German shepherds and rotweillers. Not anymore.
The director of the center, veterinary doctor Colonel Alejandro Camacho Ibarra, explains that the Belgian Malinois is a very intelligent breed, very hardy and very resistant to diseases “And that supports us a lot for work issues.”
He adds that it is the only production center that the army has in Mexico and could be the largest in Latin America.
The center’s facilities, one-story buildings mostly painted green and white, are similar to those of any other in the 37-C military camp, in the town of San Miguel de los Jagüeyez, State of Mexico. The difference here is in the sounds that fill the environment: high-pitched barking of dozens of puppies in different spaces, from the maternity kennels to the training areas.
The safety of the puppies comes first here. A few weeks ago there was an outbreak of parvovirus that sickened some quadrupeds, so these days the precautions are even greater. Before entering any area, people have to be disinfected: they spray you with a spray – in front of you, your back and the soles of your shoes – and you have to wet again – now you – the sole of your shoes in a solution within a tray placed at each entrance.
No one can touch the puppies, only the military personnel who work there. Do you want to get closer to them? Then you have to put on a surgical gown and cap, shoe covers and a face mask. And even then, you can only see them, not hold them or pet them.
One month after they are born, and when they have stopped being breastfed by their mother, training begins. The colonel says that teaching is based on play.
The idea, he says, is that they identify and pursue what they call an “attractor,” which can be a ball or a rag. The trainers use it as if it were prey: they take it, show it to the puppy, run and call them while moving it until the puppies catch it. Daily, over and over again.
“The little dog is going to go after his prey and every time he holds his prey… he is rewarded, he is congratulated,” says the colonel.
Here it is not like in civilian life, where people usually give their pet a kibble or food for having done something well. In the army, rewards are caresses and words of recognition.
The puppies that are at the center today do not have names yet, but they will soon receive one.
Colonel Camacho explains that they assign a number to the dogs when they are born and when they are over three months old they are properly named. Each year, the name is given from a letter of the alphabet. In 2023 it is the “F” and no one can be called the same.
Phoebus, Frodo, Fossil, Forage, Fido, are some of the names this year. Some are given by the military, but sometimes they ask civilians for help. They cannot be named after people or things that may cause confusion or that the army considers inappropriate.
“I can’t name a dog ‘Fentanyl’, because otherwise… how is ‘Fentanyl’ looking for fentanyl?” says the colonel.
Basic training ends when they are four months old. At that time they are sent to military units where they will receive obedience training and from the age of eight, specific training in search, tracking, detection of drugs and explosives, guarding and protection will begin. When a dog turns one and a half years old, he is ready to begin his military duties, which last for eight years and then the animals retire.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has strengthened the participation of the armed forces in different activities in the country, from public security work to support in the construction and management of airports and even a tourist train. In several military activities, canine units are important, such as in drug detection.
Although countless military dogs participate in various missions inside and outside Mexico, their identity is rarely known. The name of Proteus recently resonated, a German shepherd who was born in the center and was part of a Mexican rescue team sent to Turkey in February to help with the search efforts after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that left more than 40,000 dead. .
Proteus died during the search for survivors and a statue of him now stands at the Army Dog Production Center.
Another famous dog was Frida, a honey-colored Labrador who was part of the Navy rescue team. She rose to fame days after the 7.1 earthquake on September 19, 2017, which killed more than 300 people in the capital. Frida retired in 2019 and died in 2022.
Colonel Camacho says that some dogs born at the center are currently being trained to detect fentanyl, a synthetic opioid trafficked by Mexican cartels and which has been identified as the cause of overdose death in more than 70,000 people in the United States.
Specialized training occurs in each unit, but the colonel explains that it consists of impregnating an “attractor” with the aroma of whatever the dog needs to track, such as fentanyl.
The first approach that dogs have with this “attractor” begins in the center of the State of Mexico, when they are puppies.
A young dog training session goes something like this: Next to a grassy area, there is a square-shaped track that has different types of terrain and some obstacles, such as rocks of different sizes and textures; a tunnel, an area full of empty plastic bottles, a ladder and some tires. The challenge is for the puppy to run across, not stop and finally catch the “attractor” that his trainer is holding.
“Hint, hint!” shouts the soldier-trainer to indicate to another soldier that it is time to release the dogs. And then, two small brown bodies with black snouts shoot out.
“Fiuu, fiuuu, fiuuu!”, they whistle at them, once, multiple times.
The puppies travel the section in a few seconds—ten, twelve—the first time. One takes the lead and barely hesitates when he falls into the area full of bottles, where the second falls behind a little while continuing to advance. They both make it, cross the end and pounce on the rag that their handler shakes.
“Very, very good, children!” the coach shouts as he walks across the field.
The two puppies will continue to engage in the jargon for a few minutes and, when he tells them to, they will let it go.