SANTIAGO, Chile – Just a few months ago, a stray dog named Jimmy was in such poor health he was on the verge of dying in the municipality of Maipú in western Santiago.
However, thanks to a program in the municipality, Jimmy – a mix of St. Bernard and Akita – and 11 other dogs became part of the first canine security brigade in the country not belonging to the police or Army.
When the program began in September 2013, these dogs were in bad shape. A Rottweiler was only used for dogfights and a Portuguese Sheepdog had been burned with boiling water.
“Each one has a history of unbelievable abuse,” said Gloria Requena, the municipality’s prevention and public safety coordinator. “This project was initiated because [there were] many dogs without owners [and] nobody took care of them.”
Local authorities rescued these animals with the purpose of bringing them closer to the community and to provide added security for the municipality’s 525,000 residents. The Santiago area has 500,000 stray dogs, including 200,000 living in the municipality of Maipú.
“It’s been terrific, a wonderful idea,” Requena said. “Jimmy was an abandoned dog because he was supposedly dangerous. Now, he’s gone from being a street dog to a [guard] dog.”
Luis Aguayo, a civil dog trainer with more than 10 years of experience, was put in charge of training the dogs. From the very beginning, he believed he could work with them.
“All street dogs need a new owner,” he said, adding these abandoned animals have some advantages. “They are survivors. They’re used to living with hunger, know how to cross the street and see what others don’t see.”
Aguayo worked with the golden rules used for teaching purebred dogs: Get their attention, work on their attitude and use positive reinforcement.
Initially, he devoted himself to finding out which rewards excited each dog. He also analyzed their body language, learning that giving them affection was the main way to get them to understand instructions.
The brigade is made up mostly by females, since they learn faster, and has become part of the municipality’s Public Safety team.
The dogs have learned how to form a line, greet, crawl and follow other commands. Since the dogs are in contact with people of all ages, they have been trained to be more defensive and not to attack.
They currently patrol Maipú’s downtown, but since January, they’ve been seen around parks and swimming pools.
“I am happy with the results – other trainers can’t believe it,” Aguayo said.
The dogs work in four-hour shifts, from Monday to Saturday. When the dogs become too old to do their duties, the municipality cares for them for the rest of their lives.
The initiative prompted an increase in the adoption of stray dogs, according to Requena.
“[With this work] we encourage the view that any dog can be trained and all are valuable,” she added.
Max Navarro, president of the Jardín Santa María Neighborhood Committee in Maipú, highlights the benefits of the brigade, as street dogs are rescued, nursed to health and ultimately, provide community service.
“It’s an outstanding idea – to take abandoned dogs and give them a chance – that sets such a great example,” he said. “It helps prevent these animals from being abandoned.”
Maipú authorities like the project so much they are thinking about increasing the number of dogs from 12 to 70 by the end of the year. They also plan to use them to detect drugs.
Other municipalities have contacted Maipú officials to inquire about the initiative, especially after a video on the canine patrol received 3,000 views on its first day on YouTube.
“It feels like additional support against crime, like a tool to further control [criminals],” said Cristián Rojas, the president of the Barrio Este Neighborhood Committee in Maipú.
The canine patrol has led the public to place a value on stray dogs.
“People have realized that these animals are important when they are well trained, regardless of the breed,” Rojas said. “It creates awareness of the importance of caring for them.”