How Bomb Detection Dogs Are Trained

To meet increasing demand for dogs who are able to sniff out dangerous bombs, a top-notch training academy works double time.

Merry, a friendly Labrador, was clearing her nostrils with 9 or 10 sharp snorts just before she snuffles along a row of luggage pieces, all different models and makes. They’re arranged up against the back wall of a huge hangar on a country road outside Hartford, Connecticut. Here is where MSA Security trains the bomb dogs, known in the security trade as explosive detection canines or EDCs.

How Bomb Detection Dogs Are Trained 1

Within the shrouded world of bomb detection dog training, MSA is among the elite academies. It presently fields 160 teams working mainly in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago and Dallas-the dogs always work together in tandem with the same handler, typically for 8 or 9 years. MSA also gives dogs for what it will simply be describe as “a government agency referred to by three initials for use in Middle East conflict zones.”

Bomb detection dogs start developing their vocabulary of suspicious odors working with rows of over 100 identical cans laid out in a grid. Ingredients from the basic chemical categories of explosives-such as powders, commercial dynamite, TNT, water gel and RDX, a component of the plastic explosives C4 and Semtex-are placed into random containers. Additionally, urea nitrate and hydrogen peroxide-primary components of improvised explosive devices-have joined the training program. These odors are imprinted on the dog’s brain by means of frequent repetition and reward, Pavlov-style.

The luggage pieces joined bicycles, suitcases, shrink-wrapped pallets, car-shaped cutouts and concrete blocks on the campus of MSA’s Bomb Dog U.  Merry and Zane Roberts, MSA’s lead canine trainer, work their way across the line of luggage pieces, looking for the chemical vapors-or “volatiles”-that come off their undersides and metal frames. As it happens, the dog doesn’t smell the bomb. It de-constructs a smell into its components, identifying only the culprit chemicals it’s been taught to identify. Roberts prefer to use the spaghetti sauce analogy. “When you walk into a kitchen where someone is cooking spaghetti sauce, your nose says aha, spaghetti sauce. A dog’s nose doesn’t say that. Instinctively, it says tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, onion, oregano.” It’s the handler who says tomato sauce, or, in fact, bomb. Dogs must be trained where to smell-along the seams of a suitcase, say, or underneath a pallet where the vapors which are heavier than air settle. They don’t have to be taught how to smell, obviously.

Merry is working quickly and eagerly along the row of cans, wagging her tail energetically and pulling slightly on the leash.  Snort, snort, sniff, snort, snort, sniff, snort, snort, sniff. This is a bomb dog’s concept of fun. There are perhaps 5 other teams working the cans together with Merry, and not one of them appears slightly interested in checking the others. All of a sudden Merry sits down. All bomb dogs are trained to react this way when they’ve found what they are searching for. Nobody wants a dog pawing and scratching at something that could blow sky-high.

“Good dog,” says Roberts, the “good” an entire octave higher than the “dog” in an overstated singsong, before reaching into a pouch on his belt for the kibble which is the working dog’s pay. It may sound pretty silly, and new trainers usually have difficulty bringing themselves to approach dogs this way. “Dogs don’t speak English,” highlights Roberts, “so the only ways to communicate are gestures and tone inflection. But just try getting a six-foot ex-cop to talk baby talk-it isn’t easy. Women handlers have a much easier time with it.”

Many of the dogs here came when they were a year to a year and a half old. Prior to that, all of them went to an unusual canine kindergarten called Puppies Behind Bars. Gloria Gilbert Stoga founded the nonprofit program in 1997 in an effort to train guide dogs for the blind, however the vision was for the prisoners to learn as much as the puppies they live with. As one inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote in a training diary about her Labrador puppy, “Benjamin Franklin has shown me what really counts: love, honesty, giving and perseverance. It is sad I had to come to prison to learn this lesson.”

Puppies Behind Bars entered the war on terror with the collapsed of the World Trade Center in 2001. First, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, one of the country’s largest bomb dog employers, came knocking. MSA moved up soon after. After that, the prison program has managed to graduate 528 working dogs, most explosive detective canines . “Every time the ATF gets more funding they say, hey, let’s get some more dogs,” says Jan Brady, who helps run the service at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey.

It will be difficult to invent a better smelling machine than a dog. Its nose extends from the nostrils to the back of its throat, giving a dog an olfactory area 40 times greater than a human’s. Dogs possess some 300 million olfactory receptor cells; humans have six million. Moreover, 35% of a dog’s brain is allotted to smell-related operations. A human brain assigns only 5% of its cellular resources to smelling, and because of the low esteem in which we hold our noses, even that sounds somewhat an overinvestment.

A dog’s nasal mechanism doesn’t work the way a person’s does. So it’s not simply a case of quantity, either. To begin with, the functions of breathing and smelling aren’t all jumbled up together, how they are for us. When air enters a dog’s nose, it breaks into 2 separate paths-one for breathing and one for smelling. When a dog breathes out, the air heading out exits via a series of slits on the sides of a dog’s nose. Which means that blown out air doesn’t perturb the dog’s capability to evaluate incoming odors; actually, the outgoing air is even thought to help new odors enter. Best of all, it enables dogs to smell continuously over many breathing cycles-one Norwegian study found a hunting dog that can smell in an unbroken airstream for 40 seconds over 30 respiratory cycles.

Remember the kid in school who can wiggle his nose without touching it? Well, dogs can wiggle each nostril independently to be able to help find exactly where a particular smell is coming from, which isn’t bad if you’re looking for a well-hidden bomb.

Dogs may not take first prize in a contest for best all-around nose within the animal kingdom, however, says Paul Waggoner, associate director of the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn University. The elephant is a walking dictionary of odors. Rodents smell at least as well as dogs, and jackals are merely uncanny. None of these animals are major candidates for a bomb-detection work for apparent reasons. Where dogs top the competition is attitude. “No other animal comes so well prepared for us to do what we need them to do,” says Waggoner. “They want to please us.”

With dogs, the best breeds for locating bombs may be German shepherds, Belgian Malinoises (also called Belgian shepherds) and Labrador retrievers, more for their determined work ethic than any special olfactory prowess. Shepherds are so-called “play reward” dogs. There’s a shepherd named June training alongside Merry at MSA’s hangar. “She will work all day for her tennis ball,” says Mike Wynn, MSA’s director of canine training. Labs, constantly hungry, are “food reward” dogs. Shepherds accept criticism; Labs won’t-the stress of not measuring up takes the starch right out of them.

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True, a bloodhound follows a straight-line scent-an escaping convict, say -as if it’s being pulled by a string. “But they’re way down on the intelligence scale,” says Wynn, who worked alongside bloodhounds as a patrol dog handler with the Connecticut State Police. “Also, they stink like livestock.” It’s difficult to get Golden retrievers to adopt the system and Golden retrievers can outsmell everybody. “They’re so intelligent that if they don’t want to do something, they just don’t do it,” says Wynn. Some breeders are considering Glabs-a combination of golden retriever with Labrador-to obtain the best of both breeds.

“After 9/11 there was only this explosion of interest in being familiar with the gaps in bomb detection and detection technology,” says Kenneth Furton, a research chemist who also functions as chairman of a group called SWGDOG-the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines. “To some extent, people got interested just to show they were doing everything in their power to counter any imaginable threat. There was even a private school here in Miami that had its own private bomb dog.”

Bomb dogs would be the most disregarded troops in the hazy, undeclared war on terror. Until 9/11, they were mainly pushed aside since there were not many of them. MSA began in 1987 with a small number of dogs. By 2000, it still had only 15 teams. Then the towers fell, and from their dust took on an immediate national bomb awareness, although it wasn’t a bomb that brought the towers down. On the other hand, if bomb dogs are overlooked these days, it’s because they have blended so effortlessly into the post-9/11 landscape. An explosive detection canine inside an airport today doesn’t stand out any longer than a collie chasing a stick on a suburban lawn. One of the reasons people don’t notice bomb dogs is that they have a tendency to like them, and they are everywhere now – banks, airports, trains, post offices, sports stadiums..

One Midtown Manhattan bank started using 2 dogs to check on each package that entered and left the building some years ago. “People love having the dogs around-I don’t know anyone who hates dogs,” a security official at the bank says. “On the other hand, a police officer with a bulletproof vest and an M16 makes them nervous. It’s a no-brainer.”

Furton says more than 1,000 dogs are already submitted for some kind of voluntary EDC certification-there aren’t any required national guidelines, but agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Transportation Security Administration possess their very own standards. Overall, there are more than 10,000 working dogs out there sniffing out something fishy, mostly narcotics, says Furton. There’s no precise figure for the number of bomb dogs working today.

Each terrorist blast sends out its own bomb-dog whistle. Those numbers is only going to ascend. The whistle from the recent Boston Marathon bombing was loud and also striking. The Boston Police Department bomb squad did clean areas of the program prior to the race, but nobody holds the subsequent explosion against the dogs. The vagaries of weather and timing-it seems likely the bomb was placed after the sweep-make a sprawling outdoor event like the marathon a thankless assignment.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority operates the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center 100 yards from where the marathon bomb went off, along with the Boston Common Garage. The Hynes center was cordoned off as a crime scene after the bombs exploded at 2:50 p.m., and by 3:20, Robert Noonan, the authority’s chief of public safety, had called in MSA canine teams to sniff the 1,300 cars in the garage, which became a police staging area. “I expect there’s going to be a whole new look at canines,” says Noonan. “For Boston, this is a paradigm shift.”

MSA doubled the number of its canine teams in Boston within the days following the bombing, deploying animals from as far as Virginia in order to meet further demand. “All you had to do was watch the news, the whole psyche of the city changed.” says Marc Murphy, director of MSA’s Boston operations.

I kept waiting to bump into the Rin Tin Tin of EDCs, while speaking with the bomb dog handlers and trainers. He is the hero dog whose smart snuffling saved a busload of people. As it happens there isn’t one. Well, maybe one, a German shepherd named Brandy. In March 1972, an unknown caller threatened to explode several TWA jets unless he received $2 million. All jets on the runway were grounded, and planes in the air turned back, among them TWA Flight 7, New York to Los Angeles. It was total coincidence that Brandy was at John F. Kennedy International Airport. She was a part of an Army-funded research study and was there to provide a demonstration. Rather, she went live. Led onto Flight 7, Brandy headed right to a briefcase marked as “crew” and full of C4 explosive. President Richard Nixon gave the Federal Aviation Administration its own canine bomb-sniffing unit later that year.

It’s unusual for a dog to locate a live bomb that way, which doesn’t trouble anybody in the bomb dog business a bit. First, there’s sufficient proof that these dogs do what they’re supposed to do. Most people I spoke to had stories of dogs who sat down wisely alongside a police officer who, it turned out, had recently fired a handgun at a firing range or had recently handled bomb-making material.

Moreover, most of a bomb dog’s mission isn’t finding bombs but removing them. A bomb dog team continues to be an inexpensive approach to keep idle threats from crippling the financial institutions that comprise much of MSA’s customers even at $100 or even more per hour. “The cost to dump a building is insane-more millions than you could ever imagine,” says the security official of the Manhattan bank.

Where bomb dogs have really proved their mettle is on the battlefield. They locate bombs regularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before joining MSA as vp of operations, Joe Atherall commanded Company C of the Marines 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. The team had 3 dog teams attached to it.

“It’s good to know no bombs ever got past our dogs-that’s success even if they never find a bomb,” says Michael O’Neil, MSA’s president. Furthermore, you don’t want dogs searching for bombs, because this means someone’s out there placing them.

“One day, intel directed us to a school, but we didn’t find a lot. Then we brought in the dogs,” recalls Atherall. “There were French drains around the outside of the school, and the dogs started hitting on them. When we opened them up, we found an extensive IED cache, small arms weapons and mortar rounds along with det cord and other explosive material.” Det cord is the dog whistle of odors with almost unsmellable vapor pressure. In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist at Barnard College, describes the sensitivity of a dog’s nose with an analogy. We could smell a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee. A dog can identify a teaspoon in a million gallons of water-nearly enough to fill 2 Olympic-size swimming pools.

“I loved those dogs, says Atherall. “They were lifesavers.”

You can read the original article here.

Image: Reed Young

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