By Kenan Muftic, K9 professional


Since World War II, dogs have been used in support of military units for finding landmines and other explosive ordnance. In several countries, from Colombia to Afghanistan, the usage of IEDs and homemade explosives is increasing. The creativity of bomb makers and huge variations in the composition of explosive substances represent a significant challenge for demining operators, as detection tools and work methods are often limited. The deployment of K9 teams is still not yet standardized and potential roles in detection are still being explored, however, in several scenarios, K9 teams have proven to be successful and valuable tools.

The approaches are different. Some operators rely on K9 teams as primary detection for searching indoors and structures, while others are more conservative and use dogs only as mine clearance tools in traditional minefield settings. Crush wires and other sensitive trigger mechanisms are a great threat, whilst the (always different) mixtures of explosive substances used are not easy to generalize. Still, in cases where IEDs contain minimal or no metal content, or where other tools are too slow, K9 teams are likely to be a good solution.


In the second half of World War II, German forces started using non-metallic mines in Northern Africa. As metal detectors were ineffective, the U.S. looked at other solutions to this problem, one of them being the Mine Detection Dogs programme. In less than a year, 100 dogs were trained and deployed by U.S. forces. According to several sources, this was the first time in history that military service dogs were used for this purpose. Unfortunately, this program was not successful, largely due to misconceptions about what these dogs were trained to detect (Storck, 2012). It wasn’t until decades later when experts learned that training should focus on detecting chemical explosive substances instead of ground disturbance and scent traces of humans burying landmines.

However, similar training principles proved to be very useful during the Vietnam War, where K9 teams were used for scouting, tracking, mine/ booby trap, and tunnel detection. Almost 4000 dogs served during the Vietnam War providing the infantry units on the ground with a mobile, accurate, and cost-effective detection system capable of detecting enemy soldiers’ mines and booby traps safely. They could be employed in the same terrain that soldiers were deployed on, and in almost any weather conditions. The value that the MWDs brought to the infantry, has been shown to be incalculable (Hoeflinger, 2013).

Nevertheless, even this successful K9 training program was discontinued and shifted to military police purposes (Storck, 2012).

IED detection dog training NPA GTC. Photo credit: Nino Zaimovic.


Decades later, with the expansion of humanitarian demining and development of the mine action sector, mine detection dogs (MDD) have become one of the major operational tools. MDD applications include land mine clearance, Technical Surveys, sampling during quality assurance, verification, road clearance, followup behind demining machines, and even searching in rubble and urban areas.

Several commercial companies and NGOs were and still are using K9 teams for explosive, mine, and improvised explosive device (IED) detection in more than 30 countries around the world, mainly following procedures in line with International Mine Action Standards (IMAS). Nevertheless, in several conflict areas conventional weapons including landmines are being replaced by homemade and improvised explosive devices, especially across the Middle East, but also in several other parts of the world where guerilla groups and paramilitary units are involved in warfare and armed conflicts. The expansion of IED usage is probably a consequence of restrictions imposed on production and trade with landmines as many states are signatories of international treaties to ban landmines and cluster ammunition weapons. On the other side, producing homemade explosives (HME) and IEDs is a relatively easy process as the ingredients and technology for the production of explosives are accessible from agricultural and household products. Due to the production and availability of HME in some countries, IED contamination is becoming a significantly bigger problem than contamination with conventionally produced landmines and other explosive ordnance.

Dealing with IED contamination is a new challenge for mine action operators, and traditional detection methods often fail to give satisfactory results. Once again, K9 teams are deployed to search for IEDs in addition to searching for common landmine targets. For instance, the British and US Army deployed more than a thousand dogs to support their troops in countering IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In some countries, international companies and NGOs involved in mine action and security work, use K9 teams to search for IEDs on roads, open areas, and buildings. K9s have become a standard screening method at checkpoints, gates, airports, and members of patrol units. Some of them are specialized for IED contexts only, but often K9s are used in both landmine and IED contexts. One mine action NGO operating in Northern Iraq has separate teams for landmine and IED targets with clear differences in training and operating procedures. While their MDDs work mainly in traditional box-system site layouts and search for buried landmines and explosive ordnance targets, IED detection dogs are usually deployed on so-called extended long leashes to search roads and access paths. The group of detection targets also include a variety of triggering objects such as pressure plates and their components like batteries, polycarbonates, wires, and carbon. All their K9s, both MDD and IED detection, indicate passively by sitting, even though it is preferable for IED detection K9s to indicate from a larger distance and as fast as possible. This NGO, as well as some others, avoids using K9 teams in houses and urban areas cluttered with household items and trash. However, there are some companies deploying K9 teams also in houses and urban areas without major restrictions and strict risk assessment procedures1. The main concern in such scenarios is the actual location of triggers and main charges, which sometimes can be placed several meters apart. Therefore, it is a must that dogs are also trained to detect various trigger mechanisms and their parts, which normally do not contain any explosive substances. Several operators confirmed that dogs are able to detect even tiny crush wires, as well as several other components, but confusing them with other irrelevant items is not uncommon, so some K9 team trainers focus rather on explosive substances contained in the main charges and build their searching tactics around that.

The IED operations setting is complex and a question is: are the K9s the right detection tool? Is it sufficiently reliable despite its efficiency and the lack of alternative methods for the detection of low-metal items? To answer these questions correctly, the actual challenges and risks need to be identified.

The common opinion of most dog trainers and experts is that dogs can detect only things that they are trained (imprinted) to. Sometimes IEDs are made of conventional explosives and ammunition, but more often, IEDs are made of homemade explosives and various casing materials. Almost every IED maker is making his/her own explosive mixtures, substance ratios are usually imprecise, and nobody can predict what IEDs might contain. Are the dogs able to detect these substances?

It is correct that most of the landmine contamination remains mainly TNT-charged conventional devices, but dogs proved successful in detecting IEDs containing homemade explosives as well. On the other side, the IED context is different, not only for the unknown, various explosive substances, and trigger mechanisms, but also due to combination with other factors, such as terrain, vegetation, and humidity.

IED K9 team N. Iraq. Photo credit: Adnan Avdic.


Even though many different HME substances are being used, the most common denominator is ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3 or 2NH2O3), whose ratio in substances varies and cannot be predicted. According to some research, some traditionally trained MDDs, have difficulties detecting even TNT from different manufacturers (GICHD, 2003), moreover, the skepticism on using K9 teams in case of much wider varieties in HME is justifiable.

Nevertheless, most of the solid form explosives, such as TNT have a low vapor pressure, but ammonium nitrate does not belong to that group. For comparison, the vapor pressure2 of TNT under normal air pressure conditions and temperature of 20o C is negligible, while ammonium nitrate under the same conditions is quite volatile. Also, it must be noted that IEDs contain much larger amounts of explosives and are usually not sealed in casings like most conventional devices.

The bad news is the actual nature of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer, and it is decomposing over time. It is also easily dissolvable in water. Under normal conditions, in an open area, ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer releases over 30% of the nitrogen in about 170 days. Of course, the effect will be much slower in the closed container, but the fact is that these substances change over time more than other solid explosive substances. So, as with the substance itself, the odour is also changing and that needs to be considered when training and planning the deployment of K9 teams.

IEDK9 N.Iraq. Photo credit: Adnan Avdic.

Nevertheless, other substances in HME mixtures should not be disregarded. Taking for example, various mixtures of R1, an explosive commonly found in IEDs in Colombia, includes aluminium, paints, wood primers, sawdust, or tar. Almost all additional components, but especially volatile substances like paints increase the odour of the target and remain identifiable in the environment. The odour itself might change over time, but it is still easily detectable as it is available in larger amounts comparing conventional explosives and devices. This is an opportunity that should be fully exploited, though there are certain conditions to be met and addressed during the training process.

During the training process (imprinting phase), the dogs need to be introduced to various forms and levels of odour, combinations of odours from other target substances (casing of items), background (soil types), and environment conditions (temperature, humidity, airflow). A dog’s nose is (according to some sources) a million times more sensitive than a human’s (Dogster, 2019), and even seemingly abstract theories are being proven in practice as dogs are often detecting explosive particles measured in nanograms. However, the detection process is not only about indicating the smallest particles of odours, but rather associating specific odour pictures with those presented during the training process. Apparently, it is more the cognition process than pure sensing.

Therefore, thinking of MDD detection as smelling flowers, is entirely wrong. A much better example would be the image identification CAPTCHA test3 developed to distinguish if a computer user of the web is human. It is expected that the user will recognize a traffic sign, car, or animal presented in different ways. However, while almost every human will identify the presented item if standing alone or in a familiar context, most of those automatically generated tests will be a challenge for young children, low-intelligence people, and people with limited background knowledge. It is very similar to the dogs – identifying small particles of odour in a familiar environment is a successful task every time but detecting more massive amounts in a different context might fail if not understood as an expected task.

That does not mean that dogs must be exposed to every single odour in every possible situation to be successful. Nevertheless, it is necessary to provide dogs with a variety of target substances and searching scenarios. Once an MDD can identify a set of target odours in different conditions reliably, it will get a reference “picture” to use as a template against which to compare an unfamiliar odour picture. This is referred to as generalization training (Smith & Herstik, 2012). So, even if all odour substances are not available, it is still possible to train MDDs to reliably recognize and indicate targets when these are present in either familiar or unfamiliar contexts (Storck, 2012).

One of the examples from the same study is the process of converting Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN) for HME use. IED makers remove the limestone by some chemical means which may alter the odour profile of the final explosive mixture. As a result, dogs are presented with a material whose overall odour picture may be unfamiliar even though it may have been previously trained on the various AN components. A dog trained in “scent generalization” would still recognize the scent picture of HME. The challenge is to teach the dog that he is not looking for one specific scent (Storck, 2012).


The potential side effects of generalization training might include an increase of false indications, particularly in residential areas, former camp locations, or battlefields. Most K9 trainers will agree that false indications are the price to pay if the dogs are expected to find a range of various items and possibly unknown explosive substances. However, the testing procedures and standards on K9 deployment have determined a quite low rate of false indications as eliminatory in the accreditation processes.

The standards are developed based on the experiences of the countries with traditional landmine problems where conventional anti personnel and anti tank mines were used. There are of course a lot of common factors and similarities with contamination problems. However, challenges and unknowns require the active participation of all involved in mine action. K9 team trainers and operators should seek a way to engage with operations managers, responsible authorities, and other stakeholders to develop a relevant testing framework and the most effective methods of K9 teams’ deployment. Such collaboration should include assistance with the establishment of adequate training facilities, joint trials, testing, and the development of relevant standard procedures. The restrictions affecting the establishment of adequate K9 training areas, handling and transporting training samples, lengthy processes of approval, and misunderstandings with authorities or management personnel do not contribute to the safer deployment of K9 teams and the improvement of detection techniques in general.


The deployment of K9 teams should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Understandably, alternatives to MDDs are barely comparable in efficiency. However, the limitations of K9s need to be taken seriously, and detailed risk assessments need to be conducted on every new hazard (or part of a hazardous area). At the same time, K9 teams need to be gradually provided with a variety of new training scenarios. If this is appropriately organized, K9s will become capable of detecting a broader range of items and substances and could be deployed in areas where they were not used before. Also, new deployment techniques should be explored, and training activities adjusted accordingly.

It should be noted that besides the impression that IED-suspected areas contain many different items and substances, the actual range of targets in areas of operation is usually not bigger than in areas contaminated with conventional mines. Therefore, the first step for establishing an adequate training area will be to create a library of the targets and target substances for imprinting training.

In the end, it needs to be mentioned that the problem of tasking, administration issues, and approval processes should not impede efficient asset deployment. It would be better to reduce the number of working days on individual hazard tasks and utilize the freed time to train with K9 teams and staff. It will increase the overall downtime of individual assets, but overall productivity might grow, and better preparedness will pay back in the longer run. ■



  • GICHD. (2003). Mine Detection Dogs: Training, Operations and Odour Detection. Geneva: GICHD.
  • Storck, R. M. (2012). Improvised Explosive Device Detector Dogs (IDDs): Is the USMC barking up the wrong tree? Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps University.
  • Hoeflinger, F. (2013). The United States Army’s Use of Military Working Dogs (MWD) in Vietnam. Saber and Scroll Journal.
  • Smith, J. & Herstik, M. (2012). Structured Generalization in Scent Training of Explosive Detection Canines. The Detonator.
  • Dogster. (2019). Retrieved from



  1. Anonymous source.
  2. A vapor pressure is defined as the pressure exerted by a vapor in thermodynamic equilibrium with its condensed phases (solid or liquid) at a given temperature in a closed system. It relates to the tendency of particles to escape from the liquid (or a solid). A substance with a high vapor pressure at normal temperatures is often referred to as volatile.



Kenan Muftic is a K9 professional with over 25 years of experience.

Back in 1993, he joined Bosnian special police forces and worked as a police dog handler. Some years later he was hired by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) as Mine Detection Dog (MDD) team supervisor.

As a MDD project coordinator and technical advisor, he worked in several countries including Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Tajikistan, and Kosovo, often in high-risk environments. He was mainly responsible for MDD operations and training, but also for setting up projects, capacity building and problem-solving. He has participated in research and development projects on MDDs, including Remote Explosive Scent Tracing (REST).

He holds a degree of Master of Arts in Leading Innovation and Change of York St John University. Currently, he is employed as the Head of NPA’s Global Training Centre with responsibility for coordinating MDD resources worldwide. He is also a member of the IMAS working group on Animal Detection Systems.

Download PDF: Kenan Muftic article – COUNTER-IED REPORT, Autumn 2022