It’s one o’clock in the morning. Yekutiel Ben Yakov, a stout, rugged K-9 expert in Samaria, receives an emergency phone call from the Israeli police, imploring Ben Yakov to deploy a highly trained K-9 team to help locate a high-risk case of a soldier gone AWOL. Though Ben Yakov craves a good night’s sleep after finishing several exhausting hours of intensive training, he jumps into action. Always thankful to God when his car starts, he loads several dogs into his run-down vehicle and makes the hour-long drive to Jerusalem to begin a daring rescue mission – all while the rest of the country is fast asleep in bed. In less than two hours, Ben Yaakov’s dogs locate the missing soldier inside a forest in West Jerusalem.
For most of us, these types of scenarios are unimaginable. But for Yekutiel Ben Yakov, the trailblazing founder of Israel’s most relied upon K-9 rescue unit, it’s just another day at the office.
Born in New York and raised in Queens as Michael Guzofsky, Ben Yakov became an active member of the Jewish Defense League, a far-right organization founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. A controversial figure, after he moved to Israel and ran for office, Kahane was banned from the Knesset for his racist and anti-Arab views.
During his years as an activist and disciple of the rabbi, Ben Yakov came to the realization that the future of the Jewish people was in the Land of Israel. He made Aliyah to Israel in 1982, where he continued his activism for Rabbi Kahane’s Israeli ‘Kach’ party. A father of three, Ben Yaakov’s eldest son, Yehezkel, recently celebrated his wedding at the IDU’s kennels.
In 2000, Ben Yakov founded the Israeli Dog Unit (IDU) ]in Kfar Tapuach, a small village in Samaria. At first glance, the kennel compound, featuring barracks and a mess hall, could easily be confused for a military operation.
The unit was established following a slew of Arab terror attacks in Judea and Samaria during the notorious second intifada of 2000, when deadly attacks on Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria became commonplace and the subject of weekly headlines. As the carnage piled up, Ben Yakov felt that he could no longer stand idly by.. “We decided we had to do something to try to prevent these terrorist attacks,”
Despite being a private venture comprised exclusively of volunteers, the Israel Dog Unit (IDU) assists the Israeli police whenever a missing person case is declared. Although the police have their own K-9 unit, it’s simply too small to cover the number of missing person cases that occur throughout Israel each week. They are also unable to reach many of the destinations quickly enough to conduct an effective search, as in such cases, time is of the essence. The IDF’s limitations means IDU is needed for virtually every search for any missing person in Israel.
The unit boasts 300 volunteers nationwide, with anywhere from 10-15 K-9 teams on standby at all times in case of an emergency call-up. “We’re a relatively small organization that has a really big job,” Ben Yakov says.
“We’re the ones going deep into the field. We’re staying overnight. We’re out there with folding cots until we find the person,” he explained in a cold but authoritative tone. The 56-year-old Ben Yakov, who many still refer to by his English name ‘Mike,’ emphasizes that once someone is reported missing, the initial hours after the case is reported are of the essence, saying: “The first three days are really critical. If the person doesn’t have water, or they’re injured, or in the forest or something like that, they’ve got three days to live.”
In addition to its search and rescue work, the IDU is also the first organization to release flyers with images of the missing persons in hopes that they will be spotted by people online.
But Ben Yakov’s rescue unit doesn’t only deploy K-9 teams to search for missing persons. They also provide security for Jewish Israelis in Judea and Samaria. In fact, the unit was originally established to provide these types of protection dogs for residents of Israel’s central hills who are vulnerable to local Arab terrorism.
And although they are not supported by the government or listed as an official government agency, the police, fire department, and even the IDF have the IDU on speed dial in case they face a crisis beyond their capabilities.
The full entire cost of training the service dogs from puppyhood is roughly $10,000. This includes kennel maintenance, food, transportation to and from training sessions, training equipment, veterinary expenses, and room and board for volunteers.
While other non-profit organizations hold fundraising galas, Ben Yakov’s schedule doesn’t allow him much time to fundraise: “We don’t do much fundraising because we’re out in the field,” he explains.
Ben Yakov’s volunteers, comprised of local Israelis and volunteers from all over the world, patrol hot spots with protection dogs trained to attack on command.
But a dog is worth much more than just its ability to bite, Ben Yakov explains. The dog’s presence alone serves as a deterrent that can prevent violence against Israelis. “There’s nothing better than a dog to detect terrorist attacks and also to deter,” he said, adding that dogs are considered to be sacrilegious in Islam and therefore Islamist terrorists are afraid of them.
Ben Yakov established the IDU after learning that many Arab terrorists would select their targets to attack based on whether or not a protective dog was present. He recalls an incident in Kiryat Arba, a suburb of Hebron, where his team and their dogs pursued Arab terrorists trying to break into an Israeli home to kill its inhabitants. Incredibly, the terrorists surrendered themselves to an IDF foot patrol. Following an investigation, it was revealed that the terrorists surrendered to the soldiers because they were more afraid of the IDU’s attack dogs sinking their teeth into them than they were of the Israeli military.
Ben Yakov reports that he gets requests from as far south as Israeli towns on the Egyptian border who have begged him for an IDU protection dog to defend themselves, their families, and their assets against violent Bedouins. Hi-tech alarm systems are often incapable of deterring these desert marauders, as many know how to disable them. “We’ve protected many people. We’ve prevented many terrorist attacks,” Ben Yaakov explains.
Ben Yakov reported that his organization has provided over 400 dogs, primarily of the Belgian Malinois breed, to families throughout Judea and Samaria looking for the protection they need against ongoing and imminent terror attacks. Although these dogs live together with their families as pets, they are also well-trained to respond to threats, allowing their owners, who live in highly vulnerable areas, to sleep easy at night knowing that they’ve got the best home alarm system available. To emphasize his point, Ben Yakov recalls a doctor in Hebron who had a dog for 12 years. During those 12 years, the local Arabs “never gave him any problems.” But as soon as his dog died, the doctor was immediately subject to Arab attacks, including four break-ins into his home. Needless to say, he contacted the IDU begging for a protection dog. Ben Yakov gave him his personal dog that same day. The dog, a Belgian shepherd named ‘Ayisha’, has recently been credited with preventing a terror attack.
Ben Yakov’s policy of immediately providing dogs to those who seek them was an unfortunate reaction to a past experience that haunts him to this day. On January 17, 2003, Netanel Ozeri, a farmer from a hilltop near Hebron, asked Ben Yakov for a trained protection dog. “He knew he was being looked at. He felt he was in danger,” Ben Yakov recalls. Ozeri called the IDU on a Thursday night, asking for the four-legged guardian. But by the time Ben Yakov was finally ready to bring him one, it was too late. Ozeri was killed that weekend by two Hamas terrorists. One of the shooters was killed by other Israelis at the scene, while the second terrorist was tracked and later eliminated by the IDF.
A tragedy due to a delay in delivery is something Ben Yakov doesn’t want to see happen again.“We take it very seriously when a private person or a community asks us for a service dog,” he explained.
“This is a unique mitzvah (commandment) that cannot be done by others, and that’s why we’re so committed to it,” Ben Yaakov says of his endeavor.
Despite being spread thin and often lacking the funds for basic expenses like filling up a tank of gas when deployed to the field, the IDU has never been in a situation where they had to deny anyone a search request. Ben Yakov credits this good fortune to God.
“God created dogs in such a way that they have the ability to do things that we can’t. We just need to know how to harness it properly and train them properly and how to properly use them and maintain them to protect lives.”