ISRAEL MUHWEZI is the head of training at the police canine unit headquarters in Kibuli and his brief is to oversee the training of specialised dogs used in crowd control, sniffing as well as detecting narcotics, among others.
Nicholas Bamulanzeki shares Muhwezi’s passion for dogs, challenges of earning the trust from man’s best friend as well as his resistance to lucrative opportunities outside the force.
On several occasions during huge public events such as major football matches, the police deploy fearsome dogs for crowd control. I am sure you may have come across mean-looking officers tightly holding onto the leashes of these dogs, mostly German Shepherds.
Behind the scenes, there is always a jolly fella who commands the operation. He is always moving around to ensure everything is in control. This is the public life of Israel Muhwezi, whose profession requires him to supervise both the dogs and their handlers.
In my experience as a photojournalist, I noted this pattern for some time and I have personally interacted with Muhwezi at various events such as dog shows and Cranes matches.
I recently caught up with him at the police canine unit in Kibuli, Kampala. Here, Muhwezi spends at least six hours a day working with the different dog breeds. He was on duty sessions on dog obedience and agility at various intervals.
He started with the English Spaniels, a tiny breed I later learnt that is excellent in sniffing narcotics and explosives. It was followed by bloodhounds and then Belgian Shepherds.
The last was quite intimidating. Then came the sight of the giant German Shepherds, which is enough to scare the faint hearted but they were so laidback you could easily mistake them for lapdogs.
“These dogs are very dangerous but also very disciplined,” he says. “Seeing them relaxed like this [is because it] has taken months of training them every day.” There are about 25 dogs at the facility but there was notably no single Rottweiler or Doberman. “Those are good breeds for guarding but we don’t often use them in police due to their violent streak,” he says.
The beauty of the session is that everything is practical and the officers involved seemed to enjoy every minute with the dogs. “Training of these dogs is a recurrent effort intended to avoid lapses when they are deployed on duty,” he said. “My biggest satisfaction is completing an assignment without any incident.”
Muhwezi’s routine includes coordinating the dogs’ feeding and medical check-up, all in the name of detecting, averting and solving crime.
“One dog can do the work of 100 policemen,” he says. “It is very hard for a man to use his eyes to identify a criminal but a dog uses its nose to identify a criminal from thousands of people. That’s why we treat them with utmost care as though they are humans.”
Muhwezi has been doing this job for more than a decade and cannot be more proud of it. “I just love dogs and the most important aspect of handling these specialised dogs is to win their trust and respect,” he said.
Muhwezi specifically cited sniffer dogs used mainly at Entebbe airport. “Training a sniffer dog is more elaborate and takes more time,” he says. “I’m at my happiest when these dogs help detect illegal drugs or when they track criminals. It shows I’m doing a great job.”
Born in Kajara county, Ntungamo district, Muhwezi went to St Charles SS Ntungamo for O-level before completing his A-level at Kyamate SS in 2006.
“I was exposed to dogs at an early age when I used to move with hunters,” he recalls. “In fact, I owned several local dogs and used to sell puppies to fund my secondary education.”
During his senior six vacation, he heard about a recruitment exercise for the police and immediately joined. “After training at Masindi, I was deployed at the ICT department but later sent to the canine unit at Kibuli as a radio message receiver,” he recalls.
It is from here that Muhwezi nudged his way into dog handling and never looked back. “I’m glad Dr Mugume [the head of the police canine unit] saw a special skill in me and mentored me to be who I am,” he says.
Working at the canine unit has provided him with training opportunities to enhance his skills. In 2012, he travelled to Israel for formal training in dog handling. “That trip opened my eyes about man’s relationship with dogs,” he says.
“I got to learn how to differentiate dog moods and how to react. So, the success of any dog depends on the understanding between the dog and handler. A well-trained dog will help if the handler is not up to the task.”
Further training by the Italian Carabinieri in Florence, Italy enhanced his skills and he is now one of the few Ugandans to attain international recognition as dog trainers.
The father of two says he found a hard time looking for a relationship because potential suitors didn’t approve his work. “Many ladies despised me when they learnt I work with dogs. They saw it as a menial job but I’m lucky I got one who accepted me,” he says.
In the course of his work at the canine unit, Muhwezi spared time for further studies and now holds a bachelor’s in public administration from Kampala International University. He plans to upgrade to a master’s in future but for now, he is happy with his job.
“Dog training and handling can be seen as a dirty job but it is more rewarding than many office jobs,” he says. “I’ve had many offers to join several organisations and companies but I’m happy with my job because I have a good team around me.”
“I got an opportunity to train MiddleEast-bound Ugandans and many of them are making good money there,” he says. “Dog handlers in those countries earn big and my former students occasionally send me tokens of appreciation.”
At 35, Muhwezi plans to retire within 10 years; so, he is already grooming others to take over from him.
“Police has greatly invested in me and I owe the force to pass on the skills to others,” he says. “We need more trained dog handlers to help in dealing with issues such as homicides.
For now, though, he is comfortable to eke a living while doing his passion. In a sector where most people breed and train dogs for their own safety, it is commendable for Muhwezi to train them for the good of public keeping law and order as well as fighting crime.