“Come, come, aaja,” calls out 29-year-old Arjun Singh gently, beckoning the stray dog with a fistful of dog food. The mongrel gingerly steps towards Singh and sniffs his hand. When Singh opens his fist and the food tumbles out, the dog quickly crunches the biscuits and allows himself to be petted.
“This is the first step,” says Singh’s trainer L R Yadav. “The first step is always friendship.”
Singh is among seven guards being coached by the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) under a unique project where mongrels in Lodi Garden are being trained to become guard dogs.
If the project at Lodi ends up a success, the civic body will train more teams and deploy them at other parks and gardens in central Delhi, said a senior NDMC official. There are no recent figures on the number of stray dogs in Delhi, but a 2011 city survey put them at more than 3.6 lakh.
NDMC chairman Jalaj Shrivastava, who came up with the idea of “employing” the dogs after receiving several complaints about the menace of strays in the city, says the project will eventually take a few stray dogs off the streets and make the city safer for residents.
It was only on September 29 that Singh found out that he had been selected for the training — from a list posted at the NDMC public health department, where he served as peon for around seven years. The training began on October 1. “I was a little scared of the dogs at first, but I’m feeling less so in just a week,” he says.
Every morning, Singh reaches Lodi by 6.30. By 7 am, the entire team reaches gate No. 4, the entrance close to Khan Market. The garden is the busiest at this time of the day with serious walkers taking purposeful strides and people out on easy strolls stopping to chat. The group weaves its way around the periphery of the park, stopping when they see dogs and calling out to them. Some of the mongrels slink away suspiciously, others bound towards them. There are around 25 of these dogs in the park, says one of the guards.
Since the training is in its initial phase, most of the dogs don’t have names, except for Rani, a white stray who sits near the gate, and Snowy, a perky-eared, white dog.
Yadav leads the group, constantly encouraging the new guards to reach out to the dogs. “Shabaash,” he occasionally shouts out.
Singh says they train for six days a week; Sundays are off. Training lasts from 7 am to 3 pm and by then, the guards have made around three-four very slow rounds of the garden. The second stage of training will see the new handlers and a few chosen “right kind of dogs” being leashed. After that, says Yadav, he will teach certain commands. Once the training period is over, each guard will be put on different shifts. Yadav says he hopes the dogs will eventually be able to tell a “dushman” from a “dost”.
Yadav, who has been a trainer for over 30 years, had worked at the National Training Centre for Dogs and with the SPG dog squad at the Prime Minister’s residence. He says it will take about 15-20 days for the dogs to be familiar with the guards. The training, he says, will last at least three months.
The dogs have their territory marked out — there are groups of four-five dogs in different segments of the park. “These dogs have been in the garden for long and are familiar with regular walkers. Some of them are fed proper meals,” says Yadav.
The dogs are sprawled all around the park, some hidden from view behind bushes and others rolling about in puddles. One sits near a gardener he’s got friendly with over time. With a plastic bag filled with dog treats that the NDMC has given him and the other guards, Singh squats on the ground and calls out to the dogs. “Not all of them are friendly. Some are scared and run away,” he says. A few of the strays seem confused by the sudden attention and back away with their tails tucked between their legs.
“Khaane ke liye to aa jaate hain,” he says as a dog sniffs his hand hoping for more goodies.
“Dogs are an integral part of the park, so why not train them?” says Beverley Solomon, a Golf Links resident and a regular at the garden. The only concern, she says, is that the garden should not become a dumping ground for owners who abandon their pets.
The NDMC plans to soon build a kennel for the dogs in the garden, says chief security officer Anil Saha. All the dogs have been vaccinated against rabies and neutered/spayed.
After another round, it’s time for lunch. Singh has his food packed from home. He lives in Kotla Mubarakpur with his parents and sister. His father Hari Lal served as a gazetted officer at the Export Credit Guarantee Corporation of India and retired a few years ago.
Singh gets home by 3 pm and helps with some household chores and then sits down to read or study. Two days a week, he goes for his computer classes where he’s learning C++. “I have only studied till my class XII. I want to study further,” he says. “Maybe a diploma in a technical course or in journalism.”