Updated: Mar 27, 2018
By Cheyenne Johnson, Managing Editor
The dogs trained through Animals Saving Animals are not your normal house pet. These Belgian Malinois are handpicked and trained from their puppy days to be the best trackers and animal defenders possible.
“We want the thinking dog” said Daryll Pleasants, the chief dog trainer and founder at ASA. “We’re looking for courage rather than boldness.”
Sometimes picking out the smart dog requires a bit of trickery. When looking at potential ranger dogs, Pleasants and his team scan for the obvious signs of health and aptitude, but they’re not above playing games. In one test, Pleasants takes a bag of kibble and pours it into a bowl. The bowl, he places on an oil drum. The bag, he tosses away from him, letting it fall to the floor.
The dogs that chase the bag aren’t meant for ranger duty. The ones who leap straight for the food aren’t either. Those dogs that linger by the oil drum, noses turned up to the bowl hiding just out of sight, spending time to think about how they might get it, are the “thinking dogs”. These are the dogs chosen to one day become ranger dogs. Pleasants will run these pups through over 18 months of training, changing them from puppies into fearless and loyal animal protectors.
While the training is a long process that covers a range from how to behave under fire and in the presence of smoke grenades to how to search a vehicle and track across long distances, Pleasants’ own introduction to this world was a sudden one. While serving as a volunteer with a group of handlers, Pleasants’ witnessed something that would change the course of his life.
“I basically witnessed a poaching innocent,” said Pleasants. “The mother was killed and the baby Hope was brought up locally under the local reserves.
“It sounds so corny when you say you have one of those life changing moments, but that’s the only way I can describe it really. I loved being over there, and I loved what I did, and it kind of felt like all those skills that I learned were all coming together in one place in one time.”
Those skills have been put to good use. Each dog teams apprehends an average of 2-3 poaching gangs a year, and the effect of stopping even one person can have a huge impact on poaching.
“Once we’ve apprehend a rhino gamer,” said Pleasants, “you’ll generally find that there’s a lull for about 6 months. It’s not like people think where these rhino poachers are locals. This is organized crime. You have four poachers. You have the tracker, the sniper, and then you have the two soldiers protecting. If they lose a member of their team through us, they may take up to 3 or 4 months to recruit and actually form a new syndicate.”
For Pleasants and his team, that’s 3 or 4 months to train, grow, and improve. It’s also 3-4 months where another rhino is alive and breathing because of their work. While Pleasants relishes in the good they do for endangered species, he admits his dogs are the ones truly enjoying themselves.
“They’re constantly getting stimulation and getting exercise,” said Pleasants. “I think they’re personally having a fantastic time…They’re born for the job.”
With a keen ability to see at night and over 3 million olfactory glands, dogs are an invaluable asset to the conversation fight, given most poaching is done under cover of darkness.
“[They’re] not an expendable asset,” said Pleasants’ “[They’re] never placed in to situations where potentially they may be shot.”
The safety of these animals is not just for business; throughout their training, the dogs grow and learn together with a handler who spenders their time with the dog, developing a deep, trusting relationship. For the handlers, these dogs are a part of their family and Pleasants’ hopes they’re not the only ones who see the good these dogs can do.
The relationship can sometime extend to the community wherein the locals are encouraged to engage with and use the dogs to help their own communities.
“We actually want to build up cooperation and this relationship between the local forces,” said Pleasants, “We don’t want the dogs to be seen as this unknown force so we build relations…It’s fantastic.”
For Pleasants’, the immense and beneficial impact of the ASA teams has never been in question.
“When they actually catch their first gang,” said Pleasants, “and you know that its all been worth it…One gang captured is one rhino that’s still walking today. It’s one elephant that’s still walking today.”
Thanks to Pleasants and his team at Animals Saving Animals, there are many more rhinos and elephants that will walk safely through their homes.