Russia was the first to put a dog in space. Now, 50 years later, it has brought space to a dog, and not just any dog but Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's beloved black Labrador.
A collar containing satellite-guided positioning equipment was slipped Friday around the neck of Putin's dog, Koni, who good-naturedly gave it a test run.
The technology is not new, and has been available around the world for many years through the U.S. Global Positioning System. But Russia wants its own system and has doggedly pushed ahead with a Soviet-era satellite navigation program, still determined not to be left behind in the space race.
One of Putin's deputies, Sergei Ivanov, briefed him Friday on the progress of the Global Navigation Satellite System. Then footage broadcast on Russian TV showed them putting the collar on Koni.
Ivanov said that the equipment goes on standby mode when "the dog doesn't move, if it, say, lies down in a puddle."
Putin interrupted him jokingly: "My dog isn't a piglet; she doesn't lie in puddles."
"She's wagging her tail, she likes it," Putin said after watching Koni outside his colonnaded residence on Moscow's western outskirts.
Putin had asked Ivanov for such a collar to help keep tabs on Koni when Ivanov briefed him on the navigation system back in December. Ivanov had promised Putin, who was president at the time, that dog collars with satellite-guided positioning equipment would be available for private consumers by the summer of 2008.
But the navigation system itself, known as GLONASS, which was supposed to be fully operational by the beginning of this year, was delayed by equipment flaws and other technical problems.
Ivanov told Putin on Friday that the system would have 21 satellites by the year's end - enough to provide navigation services over all of Russian territory. Ivanov said it would be available worldwide by the end of 2009, for which it would need to have 24 satellites.
If Russia trails behind the U.S. in developing a satellite navigation system, it was way ahead in putting a dog into space.
The Soviet Union launched Laika into orbit in 1957, only a month after stunning the world with Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. Laika's mission helped pave the way for human flight, but it ended sadly for the female terrier mix.
When she reached orbit, doctors were relieved to find that her pulse, which had risen during the launch, and blood pressure were normal. She ate specially prepared food from a container.
But with no re-entry vehicle for her satellite, Laika was doomed from the beginning and her mission drew a wave of protests from animal rights activists in the West.
At the time, the Soviet Union reported that the dog was euthanized after a week. It wasn't until after the Soviet collapse that some participants in the project told the true story: Laika indeed was to be euthanized with a programmed injection, but she apparently died of overheating after only a few hours in orbit.
Fortunately for Putin's dog and many others, the satellite-guided tracking systems carry no known health risks, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"While PETA is not familiar with the actual device that Prime Minister Putin used on his dog, if the collar is similar to those used in the U.S., which are not shock collars, it is probably harmless," PETA spokesman Michael McGraw said in an e-mailed response.
The GPS tracking devices in the U.S. use the Global Positioning System to determine the precise location of an animal, person or vehicle. When put on wild animals, usually in a collar, they allow scientists to study their behavior and migration patterns.
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Copyright 2008 Associated Press