WASHINGTON — The advertisement on www.drugbeat.com couldn't be more obvious. There it is in the center of the page, up high, in all-capital letters with an exclamation point: BOMB DOGS! The company, Hornbeck's Training Center, says it "specializes in bomb searches and bomb detection." And, what's more, if your bomb dog needs are urgent it has "several bomb-detection dogs available."
There was a time not too long ago, of course, when the bomb-sniffing canine business wasn't exactly concerned with mass marketing. But since Sept. 11, things have changed. The economy may be stumbling, bankruptcies may be front-page news, but if you have a dog or, better yet, dogs that can ferret out high-explosives, times are good. In the next few years the Federal Aviation Administration plans to add 125 hounds to its bomb-detecting arsenal. And that's just for starters. Government offices around the country, like IRS bureaus, are expressing an interest in canine bomb protection.
So, too, are Fortune 500 companies, amusement parks, power plants, and, recently, cruise lines. All the interest has created something of a boom in the bomb-dog business, and not everyone is happy about it.
"Everybody and his brother wants to jump into this business," says Gene Papet, owner of Pursuing Other Interests, a canine services company in Ohio. "People who have never been in the business are jumping in as a way just to make money. It's a little scary."
The rush to buy bomb dogs is not a shocking development. The events of Sept. 11 opened people's eyes to the potential dangers around them - even in their own neighborhoods. Heightened concerns have left people looking for options, and canines are a low-cost alternative to million-dollar equipment. Though not as inexpensive as one might think: The pooches usually cost between $8,500 and $12,000 and need a full-time handler, which means another $30,000 to $40,000 a year in salary.
What's been more surprising is the sheer volume of calls and business, trainers say. Lance Mason, manager and trainer at Hornbeck, says he had never fielded a single call for bomb dogs before Sept. 11. Until that day Mason and Hornbeck's dealt in drug-sniffing dogs.
"Now it's hard to keep a bomb dog once we get one trained," he says. "We are getting a lot of business from private security companies who want a dog. And every day on the website, we are getting more than 150 hits where people click for info on the dogs."
Not all the interest has been exactly well-considered, however. Mr. Papet says his company got a call from the owner of a tire shop who wanted bomb-dog protection - and to whom Papet explained that radials and white walls, while important, are probably not on the top of Al Qaeda's target list.
Then there was the unsolicited letter one trainer sent to Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge proposing a volunteer bomb-sniffing dog brigade.
"There are a lot of legitimate needs out there, but there has been some knee-jerk reaction too," Papet says.
Along with demand, the reason the dogs are such a hot commodity is scarcity.
Though many dogs can be made into bomb dogs - the most popular are German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and Belgian Malinois for their strong noses - the canines are best trained when they're 1 or 2 years old, and training can take 12 weeks, though it varies from hound to hound.
The dogs learn through simple play. They're taught to recognize smells and are rewarded when they find the odor they've been trained to seek. With this technique, one hound can be taught to identify hundreds of different explosive agents.
Along with the recent growth in desire for trained pooches, there are always slots to be refilled. Like all animals, the dogs eventually "retire" when they're tired and bored with their work, usually in six to eight years, at which time they may miss some of the odors they're supposed to detect or start making mistakes. Recently, the Empire State building was evacuated after a false positive.
On top of the long wait created by dog training, there is the training of the handler, which can take another few weeks. The requisite period of training for dog and handler, alike, combined with the pressure to produce more bomb sniffers, has some experienced dog hands wondering if trainers are cutting corners. Even the FAA has changed its rules to meet the demand for more dogs. Its 12-week course has been cut to 11 weeks ,and its classes, once capped at eight dogs, now take up to 14.
The FAA isn't the concern, though, says Kenny Cannon, owner of Highland Detector Dogs in North Carolina.
"Lots of private companies are capitalizing on Sept. 11. They are charging more and doing less," he says. "I do small classes, so I can train each dog as closely as possible. I'm not going to start mass -producing dogs."
Cannon, who has been training bomb dogs for five or six years, says he also trains with real explosives, while many companies use "simulants or pseudos."
A lot of people may be jumping into the business, but Cannon doesn't expect them to be around the explosives game too long, "one way or another, if you know what I mean," he says with a laugh. "There are a lot of people out there who do this part time or who have some experience. That's not us. We're dog people. This is what we do."