Training Rats to Save Lives

By Emily Mandel, M.S., BCBA, LABA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

An NGO based out of Belgium is responsible for saving thousands of lives around the world. Apopo uses behavior training strategies to teach African Giant-Pouched Rats to perform several vital tasks, the most famous of which is detecting landmines. Due to their excellent sense of smell, these rats can detect even trace amounts of TNT across a wide variety of settings.

Landmines result in thousands of deaths per year. Those who are not killed often lose limbs or suffer other debilitating casualties. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, in 2014 there were 3,678 casualties caused by landmines worldwide, approximately 10 per day. Landmines are costly and dangerous to remove and very often take a great deal of time, as humans need to move slowly across the terrain to avoid detonating the mines. The use of African Giant-Pouched Rats in landmine detection is more expedient and less dangerous as the rats are too small to set them off. According to Apopo’s training manager Abdullah Ramadhan, “one rat can search over 2000 square feet (200 square meters) in 20 minutes, an area that could take a human up to four days” (Becker, 2015).

Apopo has landmine detection programs spanning across seven countries – Tanzania (the program’s training center), Mozambique, Angola, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Lao PDR. Apopo also has a Tuberculosis research and training center in Tanzania, as well as screening centers in both Tanzania and Mozambique.

Apopo utilizes a specific skill acquisition procedure to train the landmine detection rats, which includes shaping, pairing, stimulus discrimination training, and generalization training:

  1. At four weeks old, the rats are socialized with humans and introduced to range of stimuli.
  2. The rats are then clicker trained, during which trainers pair the sound of a clicker with the delivery of bananas, a highly preferred stimulus. Following the pairing procedure, trainers place TNT in various locations and the rats contact reinforcement contingent upon locating the TNT.
  3. Trainers then use stimulus discrimination training to teach the rats to identify the TNT from an array of different olfactory stimuli. When the rat pauses at the scent of the TNT even in the presence of other stimuli, reinforcement is delivered.
  4. The rat is placed in a sandbox containing areas in which the target scent is buried. The rat is taught to walk in rows and approach the trainer for reinforcement following a correct identification.
  5. The rats are introduced to a real field containing deactivated landmines. These mines are placed closer to the surface of the dirt and span across a small area. Eventually they are placed in a larger area with deeper mines.
  6. Finally, the rats are administered a final test to determine if they are ready to search for mines in real mine fields.

For more information, or to get involved, please check out Apopo’s landmine detection program.  Also check out a previous bSci21 article that touches on the history of land mine detection in behavior analysis.


Becker, R. A. (2015, October 7). Meet the Giant Rats That Are Sniffing out Landmines. Retrieved from

How many people are killed or injured by mines or cluster munitions? Retrieved from

Mine Action. Retrieved from


Emily Mandel, M.S., BCBA, LABA, is a behavior clinician in the Greater Denver Area who works with children with a range of developmental and social-emotional disabilities. She has over 4 years of experience delivering therapeutic services both in-home and in school settings. Though she is predominantly focused on the utilization of Applied Behavior Analysis in treating individuals with disabilities, Emily enjoys examining topics such as religion, medicine, politics, and social constructs, through a behavioral lens. You can contact her at [email protected].

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