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