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Should TSA let airport passenger screening go to the dogs?

It's time to send bomb-detecting dogs sniffing up and down lines of passengers at airports, say some security analysts. Dogs may reduce the need for TSA screening that is more invasive of personal privacy.

By Staff writer / November 30, 2010

Katie, an explosives detection police dog, observes travelers passing through the TSA security checkpoint at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Nov. 24, as the holiday travel season begins.

Alex Brandon/AP/File


Is there a friendlier, tail-wagging alternative to explicit body screens and "enhanced" pat downs of the flying public?

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So far, being nosed by an explosive-sniffing dog is not an option for travelers at airports, who for security reasons are now being screened via the high-tech scanners or intrusive pat downs. But some passengers and security experts say it's high time to send dogs sniffing up and down airport lines, perhaps reducing the need for methods that are more invasive of personal privacy.

For decades, canine explosive-detection teams have been used to screen air cargo on passenger flights. The US military uses dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq. In June, the European Union for the first time approved use of explosive-sniffing dogs to screen airline passengers. Bomb-sniffing hounds already pad aisles on Amtrak and many US commuter-rail trains.

VIDEO: TSA chief Pistole says no immediate changes to airport screening

"Dogs would be a wonderful solution," says Jeffrey Price, co-author of a textbook on aviation security and chief of Leading Edge Strategies, a security consulting firm in Denver. "They're much friendlier than some of the current processes – and yet, if you're hiding something, the last thing you want to see is a dog."

Bomb-sniffing dogs could improve passenger screening and explosives detection, while reducing concerns about privacy and radiation exposure, some US security experts say.

And Congress, after the 9/11 attacks, mandated increased use of explosive-detection dogs. By 2008, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) had deployed 370 certified canine explosive-detection teams to 69 airports and 56 teams to 14 mass transit systems, the Government Accountability Office reported. That year, TSA's aviation canine explosive detection teams received $36.3 million in funding.

Today, more dogs than ever are sniffing for explosives in the US transport system, though TSA will not say how many teams now scan air cargo, specifically.

"More than 750 TSA-certified explosive detection canine teams are deployed to mass transit systems, airports and cargo facilities," says Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman, in an e-mailed response to questions. "These teams are a highly effective, mobile layer of security to detect explosive materials in various transportation environments."

But TSA has not approved use of dogs for routine passenger screening in airports. Why?

Concerns about costs and passenger resistance (whether possible allergic reactions or fear of being bitten) top the list. Training a single dog and the dog's handler can take 10 weeks or more, not including regular recertification. Moreover, real explosives must be used to train dogs, which can be both inconvenient and potentially hazardous.

One big concern, Mr. Price notes, is that explosive-sniffing dogs are effective for only one or two 30-minute sessions a day. They may become ineffective after that, mostly because they get bored, he says. Their record is not perfect, either. Earlier this month, bomb-sniffing dogs in England initially failed to detect bomb material hidden in printer cartridges shipped from Yemen. Three bomb-sniffing dogs assigned to inspect cargo at Philadelphia International Airport earlier this year were reported to fail recertification tests.


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