NEW YORK — Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and the rest of the canine corps may soon be coming to your airport to put their sniffers to the test.
Teams of bomb-detecting tail-waggers could be prowling the nation's 50 major airports by next year. These four-legged luggage inspectors can spot any kind of explosive within seconds - no matter how well it is hidden. All they want in return is a pat on their furry heads, a rag to shake back and forth, or a bite of kibble.
"Just seeing the dogs there will be discouraging to potential terrorists," says Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, sponsor of the canine provision in the antiterrorism legislation that passed the House last week. The Senate is expected to take up the issue after its August recess.
Dogs are already used extensively by police departments, bomb squads, the United States Customs Service, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Federal Aviation Administration with an annual K-9 budget of $1 million, currently uses dogs to search suspicious objects and for spot-checking luggage.
"The dogs have detected explosive devices," says Mary Carol Turano, manager of the FAA's K-9 program.
Congress was loath to fund bomb-seeking animals for daily luggage inspection because it hoped to have high-tech machines in place to get the job done. With the machines in place at only two US airports - and the cost to install them nationally in the billions of dollars - the wet nose and wagging tails have suddenly become an appealing solution. Dogs cost about $20,000 each.
There is little argument that the dogs can sniff out everything from nitroglycerin to plastic explosives - even if it is only a trace of molecules on a suitcase. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says the canines can spot any of the five basic groups of explosives, which include 19,000 pyrotechnic variations in the ATF's database.
The canine snouts continually amaze scientists. "They smell things we don't even have a clue are there," says James Johnston, director of behavioral research at Auburn University's Institute for Biological Detection Systems, which tests dogs for the US government. He says dogs can detect smells beyond the sensitivity of machines to measure.
On July 28, the dogs earned their kibble in Israel when they found some explosives in a flour sack, along with some weapons and ammunition.
IN Greece, during a security sweep, a dog found a loaded gun in the glove compartment of a car. What made this discovery unusual is that the car was locked and the dog smelled the weapon through a window that was cracked open slightly. Also in Greece, dogs located a bomb, missed by humans, that had been integrated into the moving parts of a bus.
Although most dogs have a great sense of smell, the US has worked hard on their training at Front Royal, Va., and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. "Dog training used to be like black magic. It was hit or miss, but we have now brought a certain amount of scientific certainty into it," says William Simms, a State Department official involved in the Virginia training program.
One of the advantages of dogs compared with machines is that the dogs are mobile - they can climb over luggage or walk along a line of people. But, if it is hot and humid, they can't work as long. They also need periodic retraining to refresh their olfactory memories. But, if they have been trained correctly, the dog treats its day more like play than work. So, don't be surprised if you find paw prints on your luggage.