Explosives Detection Goes to the Dogs

Ronnie Garrett
Published in: 

A dog's sense of smell is said to be 1,000 times more sensitive than that of humans. And Chief Steve Heim of the Nashville International Airport (BNA) Department of Public Safety has witnessed it in action.

Not only do BNA's dogs detect explosives to keep the airports safe, they find mere traces of bomb ingredients. Heim recalls an incident in 2004 when authorities diverted an American Airlines flight to Nashville after flight attendants found an ominous note claiming a bomb was on board.

Airport police dispatched two K-9 teams to scan the aircraft, and both dogs responded to a laptop case underneath one of the seats. Though the laptop was not tied to the note incident, it sat in an automobile trunk next to bags of lawn fertilizer days earlier. The dogs had reacted to the slight odor of nitrates that had permeated the laptop case.

Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) Police Department shares a similar story: In 2005, one of its 12 K-9 teams hit on an unattended bag left in the economy parking lot at Dulles International Airport. When Virginia State Explosive Ordinance Technology teams examined the bag's contents, they found a business card covered with traces of nitrates. The bag's owner handled explosive materials on a regular basis in his job.

"That's how powerful these dogs' noses are," says MWAA's Sgt. Kevin Murphy. "There are a lot of different odors they are trained to recognize, and they train on them every single day."

This super-charged sense of smell is pivotal to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) National Detection Canine Team Program.

"Canines do a great job of detecting bombs," says Heim. "I don't think the (flying) public realizes just how safe they are because of the work these dogs do."

Find Your Partner

The program begins at the TSA Canine Breeding and Development Center, which selectively breeds, raises and prepares puppies for explosives detection. Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and German Short-Haired Pointers are the most common breeds. After the puppies mature, they begin their training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, where the curriculum focuses exclusively on explosives detection. The dogs are not trained to control suspects or detect drugs.

The dogs' human counterparts, the handlers, are the other vital half of detection teams. In hiring handlers, Murphy looks for far more than canine experience and a love for dogs. "I ask a lot of scenario-based questions: 'How would you handle this problem or that situation with your dog?' " he explains. "This helps me see their frame of mind."

Scott Vick, a trainer and handler at BNA, considers the career a 24/7 commitment and notes that his job doesn't end when he pulls out of the airport parking lot. "You need patience to work with a dog, live with a dog and take care of that dog day and night," says Vick. "There is more to it than just playing hide and seek with your dog every day."

Handlers who make the grade are sent to an 11-week program at Lackland Air Force Base, where they are matched with a dog during the first week. Heim likens the process to finding the right spouse. "There has to be a bond," he says. "They work very hard to match the handler's personality to the dog's personality."

The teams then train together for another 10 weeks. The dogs learn to detect a variety of explosive odors and to passively sit and look toward the source of their scents. "If a drug dog scratches and sniffs at what he finds, he is not going to hurt anything," Vick explains. "But if a bomb dog touches an explosive device, he could set it off."

The dogs learn that identifying scents brings rewards. A successful find earns them physical and verbal praise as well as treats and/or special toys. "If a dog isn't having fun, he's not going to give 100 percent," Vick says. "Finding explosives has to be the most fun part of that dog's life. That's when he gets to play."

Successfully completing training is by no means an end to a team's education. Once at an airport, handlers spend 30 days acclimating their dogs to the facility's sights, sounds and smells. "We need to get these dogs used to the areas they are going to be working in," says Murphy. "This means taking them into the cargo facilities where they are working around forklifts; taking them out on the airfield, so they get used to the jet noise; riding up and down escalators; walking on tile floors; even taking them into restrooms, so they don't get spooked by the sounds of auto-flushing toilets."

After the transitional period, handlers reintroduce the dogs to explosive odors, and they begin active duty.

Keeping Skills Sharp

Canine work is not like riding a bike. Staying fresh requires constant training for the handler and dog alike, notes Murphy.

The success of explosive detection programs hinges on this training, stresses Vick: "It's not enough to have a canine unit, if you don't support them."

It can also be dangerous not to train. "If you have a drug dog and he misses a pile of weed, you're probably going to live to tell the story," Vick says. "But if somebody gets by you with a case of explosives and gets on an aircraft, you may not."

BNA's four K-9 teams, which patrol the airport 24/7, train every day. Vick, who sets up the training scenarios, makes sure teams train in every area of the airport at least once every 30 days.

MWAA, which oversees Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan National Airport, also trains its dog teams every day.

"Training is worked into the day," Murphy explains. "I'll set up a training scenario and ask a handler to come over and run the training problem. Afterward, I debrief the handler on what went right and what went wrong, and then the team resumes its normal duties."

Accurate record keeping helps pinpoint each team's strengths and weaknesses to help tailor their training. For instance, if records show a team is weak on locating high aids (explosives placed above the dog's head), then upcoming training scenarios will focus on that to help the team reach greater proficiency, Murphy explains.

How to "Dog" Your Security Detail

The success of the Transportation Security Administration National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program dates back to 1972, when a bomb-sniffing dog named Brandy sniffed out an explosive device on a Trans World Airlines jet at JFK International Airport just 12 minutes before it was set to detonate.

Shortly afterward, President Nixon directed the secretary of transportation to create the TSA Explosives Detection Canine Team Program.

The program started with 40 teams at 20 airports in 1973, but expanded substantially with the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997. Today, more than 700 canine teams work to sniff out explosives at Category X and Category 1 airports across the United States.

Airports interested in participating in the program may submit a letter of interest on official department letterhead to:

Director, National Explosives Detection Canine ProgramHeadquarters Transportation Security Administration 601 South 12th Street (TSA-7)Arlington, VA 20598-6105

Vick enlists his unit daily to brainstorm training objectives. Scenes often include vehicle doors and trunks, luggage carousals or building ceilings. Handlers work to vary the scenarios and continually increase the difficulty. "We always look for ways to challenge these dogs to make sure they're successful at keeping the public safe," says Vick. "If the dogs are consistently finding something at six feet, we want to put the next aid at seven feet. If they are consistently finding a half-pound of explosives, we move them to a quarter pound. Anybody who says their dog never misses is clearly not challenging their dog enough."

Regular training also hones handler skills. "A dog that doesn't train for two or three weeks isn't going to forget the scent of an explosive, but a handler who doesn't train for three weeks may get rusty and make mistakes," Murphy explains.

Regular training helps handlers identify "non-productive responses" - subtle cues from their dogs, such as tail wagging, drooling, changes in ear position or other slight behavioral changes.

"If you're watching your dog and you know how he normally acts, then you'll know if something's not right," says Heim. "The handler needs to be the one who knows that dog best, and that only comes through regular training."

High-stake Evals

The TSA canine program maintains strict standards about following regulations, maintaining call and training records and annual re-certification, relates Murphy. "If you are not in compliance, you could lose your funding," he says.

Each team costs about $100,000 per year, he reports, and TSA provides $40,000 per team to help offset the handler's salary and benefits, the dog's food and veterinary expenses, and any necessary equipment.

"TSA funding helps a lot," he comments.

That makes the stakes high during strenuous TSA evaluations needed to maintain annual certification. The dogs must successfully complete searches in vehicles, luggage, cargo, terminal facilities and aircraft (wide- and narrow-body). TSA officials hide training aids for teams to find, and they're only allowed one miss. "They have to be successful at least 92.3% of the time," says Murphy.

"There's a fine line between 100% and fail," Heim adds. If a team fails, it needs to repeat the recertification process.

Murphy is pleased with his team's recertification records: "We ran nine teams through evaluations last year, and two of those teams had perfect scores with no misses. The other teams passed with just one miss."

Vick is similarly proud: "I have had five 100%; Ray (another handler) has never had less than 100%."

Both attribute their success records to routinely challenging their teams. "Some places don't challenge their dogs enough; they get lazy or become complacent," Heim says. "But you cannot afford to be complacent, or these teams are no good to anyone."


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