A nose for foes
Bomb-sniffing dogs are an airplane passenger's best friend.
The next time you fly, take a peek at your luggage after it tumbles down the chute at the baggage claim. You may find a fresh paw print or two. That's because teams of dogs are standing watch at many airports, helping to keep you safe.
Take Lenny, for instance. He's a black Labrador retriever on duty at Boston's Logan International Airport. Lenny is one of 174 bomb-sniffing dogs nationwide.
The Federal Aviation Administration's bomb dogs are on duty at 39 airports. The dogs sniff unattended suitcases and suspicious packages, nose vehicles left at the curb, search terminals after bomb threats, check passenger areas and parking garages, and scour aircraft.
Until recently, you could see neither hide nor hair of these dogs. Some thought canine units would spook passengers. But in the wake of the terrorist attacks last month, the FAA plans to step up dog patrols throughout the country.
"Even before the attacks," says the FAA's Dave Kontny, "we had planned on expanding the program, but this has just accelerated the process." Mr. Kontny is the manager of the agency's canine and explosives program. The FAA is speeding up the dog training and adding classes so that new handlers and dogs can be sent quickly to airports.
Over the next year, the FAA plans to add 25 more airports and 100 more teams, each composed of a dog and a handler. Soon, you'll see more and more of these dog teams sniffing their way through airport concourses.
The program began in 1972. On March 9 that year, an anonymous caller said a bomb had been planted on a TWA airliner bound for Los Angeles from New York. The jet quickly returned to New York, where passengers and crew were evacuated. New York Port Authority Police brought in a bomb-sniffing German shepherd named Brandy to search the airplane. She found the bomb 12 minutes before it was set to explode.
All trained in Texas
Later that same day, President Richard Nixon ordered the FAA to use "innovative means" to combat such threats. Six months later, the FAA's Explosives Detection Canine Team Program was born.
Handlers and dogs are all trained at the Defense Department's Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.
Lackland's 341st Training Squadron is the largest dog-training center in the world. Annually, the school instructs 550 handlers and 190 dogs for all branches of the military and the FAA. The daily kennel population is about 350 dogs, which eat 300 pounds of kibble a day.
The handlers are police officers with an average of five years' experience on the street. At the most recent class, officers came from the Memphis International Airport Police, Denver International Airport Police, and Miami-Dade Police department. (The teams work for their respective police departments. The FAA pays to train canine and handler.)
The school buys dogs that are from 1 to 2 years old. Before the dogs are accepted into the program, trainers spend weeks checking the dogs' health, their willingness to work, knowledge of basic commands, and ability to detect a "target scent" (in this case, gunpowder).
The FAA prefers sporting breeds - Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and Chesapeake Bay retrievers - for their intelligence, good dispositions, and gentle looks. They also use German shepherds and their close cousin, the Belgian Malinois (MAL-ih-nwah), which look like short-haired German shepherds.
Airport canines must be kid-friendly
"We need forgiving dogs," says Jerry Marriott, a veteran trainer at Lackland, "ones that will tolerate strangers coming up and petting them or kids teasing them, because they'll be encountering crowds of people every day." In a new program this fall, puppies will spend a year or so with "foster families" before training. That way, the dogs will be used to people and different environments.
Training begins by introducing a dog to the odor of an explosive, like dynamite or C-4 (a military explosive), and then making the dog sit. Trainers repeat this process until the dog learns to sit whenever it detects that smell.
Trainers then place the (unprimed) explosives into one of four cardboard boxes. It's a game for the dogs: Find the explosive. If the dog gets it right, it gets to play with a rubber toy called a "Kong" and is lavished with praise.
You won't see trainers yelling at animals, swatting them with rolled-up newspapers, or yanking on choke chains. Mr. Marriott compares the training to teaching the dogs to play hide-and-seek.
"It's got to be fun for the dogs," Marriott says. "It has to seem like playtime.... Once it seems like work, the dog breaks off and will quit on you."
The tests get tougher as training progresses. Instructors hide the explosives in unusual or hard-to-reach places. They reduce the amount of explosive and add distracting odors likely to be found in airports - dirty diapers, perfumes, even honey-roasted peanuts.
The dogs also learn to work in different settings - warehouses, parking garages, baggage-claim areas, offices, and aircraft (the school owns six grounded Boeing 707s).
By the time the 10-week training is over, the dogs can detect about a dozen bomb groups. (For security reasons, the FAA won't say exactly which ones. Nor will they discuss any "real world" finds made by the dogs.)
For their final exam, dogs must detect or "hit" on a specific number of explosive caches, stashed in six different environments. Only those dogs scoring an A-plus pass the course. Dogs are retested yearly.
During a recent exam, Officer Tim Adams took his new partner, a 2-year-old German shepherd named Toby, into a bedding warehouse in San Antonio. The team is destined to work at Memphis International Airport. Adams commanded Toby to "seek," and the dog bounded off, tail wagging and nose sniffing. He snooped up, down, and around, examining crates, pallets, and boxes. When Toby picked up the scent, he began snorting frantically near a pallet full of comforters.
The dog found the explosives hidden behind a box, and plopped into a sit, attentively staring up at Adams for his paycheck: an "attaboy" and a rubber toy.
Drug-detection dogs, like those fielded by the US Customs Services, are trained to scratch at suspicious packages if they smell narcotics inside. The FAA, however, teaches its dogs to stay at paw's length.
The dogs' sole purpose is to detect. "Our handlers aren't looking to chase down a suspect with their dogs," Kontny says, "and they're not going to defuse a bomb. We call in the experts for that."
After graduation, the dogs spend a month adjusting to their new workplaces and homes. Most handlers bring their partners home at night, and many dogs retire to the handlers' homes after six to eight years of detection work.
Airports have X-ray machines, chemical-trace detectors, and more. But "the great thing about a dog," says Larry Myers, "is that it's a virtual, real-time detector. You don't have to take it to the lab and wait for an answer." Dr. Myers is an expert on canine physiology at Auburn University's veterinary school in Alabama. A dog is also "adaptable and can make decisions," he adds. "So if you're searching for explosives, give me the dog, every time."
Dogs are mobile, versatile, affordable. "They are the only explosives detector we have that can locate and then respond at the source of an explosive odor," Kontny says. "The bad guys can check the specs and attempt to gauge a machine's capability, but they can't measure up a dog."
With their super-sensitive noses, dogs are a strong defense in America's war on terrorism. Scientists estimate that a dog's nose is from 100 to 10 million times more sensitive than a human's.
"There aren't machines sophisticated enough yet to measure the might of a dog's nose," says Paul Waggoner. He directs Auburn University's Institute for Biological Detection Systems in Alabama.
Dogs can discriminate between clashing odors. They can filter out "junk smells" and zero in on one scent. If your ears were as finely tuned as a dog's nose, you could find your best friend in a crowded school cafeteria by the sound of his voice ... even if he were whispering.
"We know that dogs have the ability to detect at least 1 to 100 parts odor in one billion parts of air, but their noses may be even more sensitive," Dr. Waggoner says.
That means a bomb-sniffing dog could literally find a needle in a haystack - if the needle had a drop of nitroglycerin on it. This ability to discriminate between odors is important to the Federal Aviation Administration, because a terrorist might try disguising a bomb with strong smells like coffee or perfume. But that's not likely to fool a well-trained bomb dog.
"A person walks down the street, passes a bakery, takes a whiff, and thinks 'Hmm: bread,' " says Bob Blessing, a longtime FAA dog trainer at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas. "A dog passes the bakery and thinks 'Hmm: Flour, water, sugar, salt, yeast....' "
The same sorting of smells happens if someone tries to mask the presence of explosives in a suitcase. An FAA dog can detect dynamite through dirty diapers, or C-4 through smelly socks.
If you go sniffing around the Web for more information on the Federal Aviation Administration's bomb-sniffing dog program, you'll only find a few scraps. That's because the FAA is keeping a tight leash on its tactics, so as not to give bad guys an advantage. (The Monitor stories were carefully screened by the FAA before publication.) You might find the following sites useful, though:
Dogs With Jobs
Profiles on dogs that earn a "paycheck" by serving humans. It includes breed profiles and a video clip.
Animal Planet's Working Dogs
Learn more about "blue collar" dogs that work in show business, law enforcement, ranching, and search and rescue.
USDA's Beagle Brigade
Working nose-to-nose with the FAA bomb dogs is the Department of Agriculture's Beagle Brigade. They sniff air travelers' luggage, hunting for prohibited fruits, plants, and meat that might contain harmful plant or animal pests.
Auburn University's Institute for Biological Systems Detection
The Institute, located at Auburn University's School of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama, studies how dogs' sense of smell can be used to help humans.
Vietnam Dog Handler Association
Today's bomb-sniffing dogs are descendants of Vietnam War-era military dogs that served as scouts, combat trackers, and mine and tunnel dogs. This site is dedicated to those dogs and their handlers.