Sunday July 27 2014

Meet Gimei the veteran dog handler

Godfrey Gimei (L) and colleagues train an attacking dog at the dog training centre.

Godfrey Gimei (L) and colleagues train an attacking dog at the dog training centre. Photos by Rachel mabala 

By Jacinta Odongo

About a month ago, my daughter received two cross breeds dogs as a present for her baptism. I was very excited because I wanted her to own a pet. Unfortunately my landlady did not welcome the dogs at her premises. I was forced to find another home for my dogs. I called a friend who knows much about dogs and she recommended Pinnacle Dog Training Centre, a dogs’ boarding school in Ggaba.
I made an appointment with the owner of the school, Godfrey Gimei. Out of curiosity, I wanted to find out more about the dog breeding business and how this man picked interest.

The next day,I found him dressed in a khaki overall with brown boots at the expansive kennel-filled space with all manner of dogs peeping through the mesh. At first I thought of him as a caretaker, only for him to tell me that he had been waiting for me to arrive and begin the dog training process.
Gimei then called one of his trainers to bring his two favourite dogs, a brown bullmastiff and a German Shepherd which he ordered in Dutch ‘gaan zitten’’ meaning “sit down” when they tried to make a move towards me.

Little did I know that I would also come face to face with some of the most impressive and yes I admit, scary looking patrol dogs before witnessing the most impressive feat performed by the dog and their trainers.

Starting out
Gimei is a professional dog handler of 25 years. As we walked to the dog kennels to meet some of his employees, Gimei explains how he started the business.

“I started loving dogs at 10years in the 1990s while staying with my great grandfather Mazanga in Mbale District. He had so many dogs and surprisingly thieves never invaded yet our parish had registered so many theft cases. In 1996, I moved to Kampala to stay with my uncle who was the then Senior Superintendent of Police, Charles Wanadoya. He was working with the dogs section at Uganda Police and he had been in that department for over 35 years before his retirement in 1998,” explains Gimei.

While staying at his uncle’s place, Gimei started looking after the dogs by washing them, cleaning their kennels, feeding them and playing with them just like human beings. One day, his uncle advised him to pick interest in starting a dog breeding business saying it is a good source of income. “Uncle told me he managed to pay his children’s fees by breeding dogs. Many people frequented his place on a weekly basis to buy his dogs as well as pay for other dog services. I picked interest.

First job with dogs
After a while, I applied to Saracen Uganda Limited and luckily I was recruited. I worked with them for a year before moving to Security Group Africa (SGA) which was then called Group for Security. And, in 1998 Alarm Protection Services (APS) recruited about 200 people and I was among them. We had a very harsh military training and I passed it very well I emerged fourth out of 100 people who were shortlisted,” he explains.

Gimei trained in APS as an Operation Safety Trainer for a year but that same year the American Embassy in Nairobi and Dar-es-Saalam, Tanzania were hit by terrorists. “It was after that incident that the Uganda government sought expertise from a South African Company which was headed by Heck Horn and his wife Bear. They came with a number of experts under Saracen Group but ended up signing a contract with APS after a misunderstanding. I happened to be among the chosen few who passed interviews highly and was employed immediately,” Gimei recalls.
He then spent a few months with the South African company where he fine-tuned his skills as a dog trainer.

Testing skill
After Gimei’s fourth month, his ability to carry out his task was put to test when he was given a very fierce dog called Rasco to handle. His role was to teach the dog basic obedience-such as, sit stay, heel and come- by their handlers, under his supervision. He also worked on the more demanding training tasks of tracking, searching, attacking and bite work with a South African instructor called Brigitta Marilez.

“Marilez told me that the dog was going to be under my supervision. It felt scary because it was a new huge and fierce looking dog. I had to get used to it by taking it in and out of its kennel daily. One day, while she was training the dog with other handlers, she started whipping it as that is part of the training for an attacking dog. Unfortunately, Rasco became aggressive and wanted to go after her. She screamed in fear begging me to hold the dog tightly,” he adds.
The dog then turned to Gimei and sunk its teeth in his leg which caused him a terrible illness that lasted a fortnight.

Rising through
Gimei thought of quitting his job but his passion could not hold him back.
“When I resumed work Horn called me to his office and gave me compensation as well as handed me a promotion letter to an assistant supervisor. Excited, I worked extra hard. In 2000, the company got a contract with a Tanzanian based organisation called Ashanti Gold Mine. The then project manager of that company, who was also South African relocated to Uganda. Horn had recommended me to him. The gold mine had about 15 dogs but every night thieves would break in and steal gold from 50 to 60 containers and I was now known by top companies as an efficient handler,” he explains.

Turning point
After about a week Gimei left for Tanzania. From there, his life took a new trend. He was assigned as a project manager in-charge of the container terminal. “I went with Rasco and in a few days, the Ama Group of Companies now known as G4S imported 32 more dogs to disperse at Ashanti. The gold mine director gathered all the workers at the terminal to see the training that I was going to give the dogs. I used Rasco for demonstration and everyone got frightened. From that night there was no single container that was broken into. I worked for Ama Group of companies for eight months,” he says.

Gimei was called back to Uganda as an overall supervisor for BRZ Company Limited but life was not so smooth for him. His superiors looked at him as a threat to their jobs. “The director called for an urgent meeting where she cleared the air that I was but a fellow worker. Most of them stopped perceiving me as a threat. My boss also asked me to go to Northern Uganda after the war to do demining courses which I did,” says Gimei.

Going to Iraq
In 2002, when the American army invaded Iraq they needed professional dog handlers to help them in detecting explosives using sniff dogs. Fortunately, Gimei was recruited among the few lucky professional dog handlers from Uganda.

“But I was a bit hesitant because of the kind of situation in Iraq though the pay was handsome. I had to compromise between dying a poor man or making an extra buck. I took a chance. We first left for Dubai for two weeks to calm down the anxiety. After two weeks, we were told to get ready for Baghdad, Iraq and everybody froze because we knew time for our death had approached,” narrates Gimei. Finally we went to a crisis area.

“We were taken to the IZ, a green zone area where Saddam Hussein and his army officers used to live. We had to be transported to that area by entering a container. The marine officers who took us there were armed from tooth to nail with four guns and luckily we reached the place safely. When we arrived I found another detective expert from Uganda and he was very pleased to see me. He assured his colleagues that I was a professional if only they give me time,” he says.

More training
During his stay in Iraq he had the chance to do the explosive detector dog handlers course and it gave him a taste of what other opportunities were out there. “One day the American army officers placed explosives in three cars without my knowledge. They wanted to test my skill. Since I used to move with my dogs, one of the sniffers ran to the cars and indicated a sign of danger. I asked them to move aside then took my dog towards the cars and it detected the explosives.

From that moment, I was entrusted to work with Gurkhas from Nepal, one of the best fearless military armies in the world while in Iraq. I also won many certificates of recognition and awards,” he adds. Gimie worked in Iraq for about three years where he used to earn $2000 per month before his resignation in 2007.

Back home
Upon his return to Uganda Gimei started Watertight Services and Pinnacle Dog Training Centre. In 2008, he went to the Penn Foster Career School, USA to pursue a Diploma in Dog Training, as well as attend other handling classes.

“When I came back I joined Pinnacle Group Limited as a K9 officer and it is from there that I trained many people as well as dogs of prominent people like the first lady Janet Museveni when I was working with the advanced team of Presidential Press Unit and the handlers of Giant Dog breeders among others. In this line of work you have to be able to look after your mate and sometimes you have got to put your life in their hands. So knowing how to handle yourself is critical,” adds Gimei.