Canada's military is already planning for a 2011 withdrawal from Afghanistan but in the meantime is ramping up the deployment of bomb-sniffer dogs - canines trained to detect the hidden explosives that insurgents use to kill Canadians.
The Canadian Forces is calling for bids on a contract that would permanently increase the number of sniffer-dog teams from about 26 - the number on hand last fall - to about 40.
The dogs, frequently German shepherds or Belgian shepherds, are used to find land mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) hidden along roadsides or in buildings.
Dogs have worked in increasing numbers with Canadian troops in Afghanistan since 2005 - one was killed in action in 2007 - but the military in recent months decided it needed more.
"The existing contracts that were in place weren't providing sufficient number of dogs to support the manoeuvre plan for Joint Task Force Afghanistan," said Major Terry Evoy, referring to Canada's military mission.
"We determined we needed to augment the number of teams available to adequately support the commander's manoeuvre plan on the ground."
He said a well-trained sniffer dog is one of the best bomb detectors available to the Canadian Forces as it works to reduce deaths from IEDs.
"They are one of the most effective tools we have for finding explosive hazards. You can spend millions of dollars on technology and the technology still isn't as viable as a dog's sense of smell," Major Evoy said.
Of the 138 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan, more than 120 were killed by IEDs or land mines. This count includes the bombs that killed five soldiers and a Canadian journalist last month.
Sniffer dogs are used to search buildings, vehicles, choke points and routes. They conduct roadside sweeps and even find explosives that insurgents bury inside building walls.
"They are out side by side, and oftentimes in front, of our guys," Major Evoy said.
The animals are trained to detect the scent of many explosives. The military's Dec. 28 request for proposals lists 12 explosive materials from C-4 to Semtex to TNT that dogs must be able to sniff out.
"It's a low-cost solution to a potentially high-tech problem. The enemy is getting smarter and smarter," said Nick Guidas, program manager for American K-9 Detection Services in Afghanistan. His company has provided services for the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan since 2005.
The new Canadian Forces contract for sniffer dogs will cover the period from May 1, 2010, to July 31, 2011, with options to renew for one-month periods after that. It will replace a short-term "bridging" contract awarded in November. Canada's military mission in Kandahar ends in 2011 and Ottawa has said it plans to withdraw combat soldiers that year.
The Forces requires highly trained dogs for the task of bomb detection. One of the contractual requirements stipulates the "dog must not bolt at the sound of nearby gunfire … [and]must be capable of remaining at the handler's side during exchanges of fire."