Man’s best friend may be our best bet for staying safe

Trainee Dory, a Munsterlander, eyes a dog toy thrown by her handler after she sat to alert him to the smell of explosives. CREDIT: Photo by Ben Sklar for The Washington Post

SAN ANTONIO – In San Antonio, the din of awakening trainees pierced the quiet of a new day. The noise traveled uphill, to the parking lot of the main office, and penetrated the windows of a van carrying guests down to the yard. The commotion intensified as the vehicle drew closer to the barracks. As the passengers unloaded, a staff member handed out earplugs.

The residents barked, whined and pawed at the concrete walls and chain-link fencing. The winter classes of the Transportation Security Administration’s Canine Training Center at Lackland Air Force Base, which instructs up to 150 recruits, were ready to serve. They just needed someone to let them out.

“Comin’ out,” a trainer hollered while leading a German shorthaired pointer outside.

One by one, the instructors exited the kennels with their charges tight at their heels.

- FWBP Digital Partners -

“Coming by, coming by,” said another staffer, gripping a Belgian Malinois.

The march of dogs continued: Weimaraners, German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, springer spaniels, retrievers of varied coat lengths and colors.

“Stopping,” shouted an instructor holding a black Labrador.

He guided the animal into an air-conditioned unit set on wheels – a mobile dog motel. The tag clipped to his door read: Bruno.

- Advertisement -

The cubbies quickly filled up, and the trailers rattled off. The barking subsided.

Calm returned.

Roaming through cruise ports, train stations, courthouses and college campuses. Appearing at Super Bowls, marathons and holiday parades. Inspecting vehicles in airport parking lots and planes on tarmac. Sniffing luggage and legs in security lines.

- Advertisement -

In public settings around the country, dogs are becoming as ubiquitous as security cameras and as visible as X-ray machines.

The dog – all wet nose and whiskers – is the new face of security.

“There is no better overall detector of explosives than a dog’s nose,” TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said. “Dogs work an environment like no technology can. They are versatile, mobile and very accurate.”

John Ensminger, a lawyer and consultant on legal issues involving working dogs, said U.S. police departments employed about 5,200 dogs in 2000; the current figure has likely doubled. TSA has also been beefing up its K-9 brigade. Since 2011, the number of explosives-detection canines has grown by 25 percent, from about 800 to 1,000.

The Penn Vet Working Dog Center, which opened on Sept. 11, 2012, in Philadelphia, focuses on research, breeding and training detection dogs, and advises law enforcement and federal agencies on how to best exploit their canine resources. Ninety percent of its graduates are employed in such fields as search and rescue; narcotics, explosives and bedbug detection; and diabetes alert. The other alumni are pursuing therapy support and ovarian cancer detection. Cindy Otto, executive director of the center, envisions dogs branching out to cinemas, schools and private security firms.

Could a dog have even stopped the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida?

“Explosives-detection dogs will often detect pistols and other small weapons,” said Ensminger. “Assuming that the shooter had entered at a door when a dog was working there, it is quite likely he would have been stopped.”

In these anxious times, dogs could have a twofold impact on potential terrorist attacks: deterrence and detection.

“It’s time to start thinking about deploying these dogs in different ways,” Otto said.

Looking toward the future, will the new world order resemble a Planet ofthe Dogs, where humans pass through a phalanx of canine noses to enter event venues and ride mass transit? Will dogs supplant scanners and swabs? Do dogs, which have stood by mankind’s side for at least 15,000 years, represent the next generation of scientific innovations?

“We refer to dogs as real-time mobile detection technology,” said Craig Angle, co-director of the Canine Performance Sciences Program at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama. The program, which competes for government contracts and grants, developed methods for dogs to find improvised explosive devices with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and patented Vapor Wake technology. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and Amtrak police departments were the first to adopt the latter practice of using dogs to track suspicious odors on moving targets. The researchers are currently studying virus detection: Imagine a canine identifying Ebola on an individual entering the country.

“The dog is the gold standard,” said Paul Waggoner, also a co-director at the Alabama center. “We are not in our lifetime close to emulating a dog’s nose.”

TSA’s National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program, which the Federal Aviation Administration founded in 1972, is the government’s second-largest dog-training program. (The Department of Defense ranks first.) The Lackland-based facility prepares dogs and handlers for service with TSA, the Federal Protective Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and Amtrak. Nearly 1,000 six-legged teams safeguard more than 100 airports, mass transit stations and cargo-hold sites. The agencies assign the dogs to spots with the heaviest passenger volume and greatest potential risks. In May, TSA relocated the animals to some of the country’s busiest airports, such as Chicago O’Hare, Newark and Atlanta, to handle the surge in summer travel.

About 230 canines graduate from Lackland annually, and Neffenger has secured funding for additional teams next year. The agency will need to acquire and train the dogs, expand its chest of toys and tennis balls, and sign up more handlers. TSA fields candidates internally and from the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies and private sector organizations. No prior dog experience is required, though many résumés include explosives-detection work during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. All handlers attend a 12-week basic training course, where they meet their partners-in-security.

“It’s essentially a big game,” Neffenger said, “but a game that has dangerous consequences if it’s not played right.”

The agency has also expanded its areas of oversight. Travelers are one of the newest fragrances. Previously, the dogs focused on static objects: cargo, luggage and vehicles. Five years ago, the agency created a passenger-screening canine division. The animals added ambulatory targets to their hunt for dangerous material, such as the businesswoman hustling to her gate or the backpacker gliding through the checkpoint line.

“The dogs are a visible deterrence factor and a disruption,” Neffenger said. “They also calm the whole screening environment. Animals are inherently fascinating to watch.”

From the outside, Lab 7 at Lackland resembles a warehouse that might house secrets – a fleet of world-dominating drones, perhaps. The featureless exterior, absent windows and signage, didn’t yield any clues. No sound escaped the heavy metal door. But once inside, any preconceived notions of covert operations evaporated when a pup named Bator bounded for a tennis ball, which released a mousy squeak.

The canines start explosives-detection training with basic skills courses held in controlled settings like Lab 7. Over 35 to 37 weeks of instruction, they will progress to advanced-level challenges staged in mock environments – fuselages, railway cars, airport terminals, a parking lot – constructed on the base. In the final phase, they will embark on field trips to real venues with real dangers, such as malls and the San Antonio airport.

“We’re preparing them for the bad guy,” said Diana Thomas, a training instructor.

On an early March morning, the dogs at Lab 7 were about three weeks into their training – still grunts. The exercises were rudimentary, the canine version of playing with wooden alphabet blocks. The instructors started by planting the material at snout level.

Barbara Black-Diaz, a handler, led Bator to a medium-high wall pocked with holes. The German shorthaired pointer poked his nose into the spaces as if it were a carnival game. Halfway down the line, a scent grabbed his attention. He sat down, signaling a find. Black-Diaz tossed him his prize.

Chad Perraut took his trainee, Dory, into an adjoining room furnished with airplane seats. The Munsterlander snuffled the orange cushions. She followed a methodical flow – seat by seat, row by row. She scooted up onto a seat and pushed her nose under the cushion. She hopped back down and sat.

“Woo-hoo, there it is!” Perraut exclaimed in a who’s-a-good-doggie voice. “You’re going to save the world!”

Perraut next tested Dory in a series of chambers rife with distractions, such as stacked furniture and idling strangers. In a faux hotel room, Dory uncovered hazardous material stashed in a nightstand. In Rooms 2 and 4, she exited without a positive whiff (not finding is as crucial as finding). In Room 3, she exposed an item tucked inside a credenza. In the final room, she poked around a man reading a “Star Wars” book before exposing the goods inside the pencil drawer of a desk.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Perraut said as Dory attacked her Wubba dog toy. “She’s going to be the face of TSA.”

Over the next few months, she would set her nose loose in the small baggage lab, which resembled a lost-and-found closet, and in the cargo lab, a jumble of boxes and bags piled high on shelves and stuffed in circus wagons. She would scour planes, trains and cars. If all went well, she could sniff her way through a demanding career that could last through middle age, in dog years.

“I look at these animals like pro athletes,” said Rob Grauel, a lead training instructor. “They have to keep practicing and practicing.”

In the “terminal,” the sprawling space pulsated with the frenetic energy of a real airport. Classic rock tunes blared over the speakers. A woman read on a Kindle; two actor-passengers chatted softly. Individuals would suddenly bolt out of their seats. An information board posted arriving and departing flights. The 10:05 a.m. to Dallas was canceled. There was no shortage of verisimilitude.

In spite of the hubbub, Caki moved as though he were inhabiting his own soundproof bubble. The German shorthair inspected one gate area, cut through the cafe and beelined for a back row in a second waiting section. He pinned his focus on a woman in a purple shirt. She strutted off, but Caki wouldn’t let the perpetrator – or the explosives concealed beneath her pant leg – get away.

The team repeated the exercise with a slight modification: This time, Caki would work the security line. The passengers snaked their way to the ticket counter; each person passed Caki without incident. Then the woman in purple approached. Busted again.

Canines arrive on the job with the proper equipment. They breathe through the center of their nostrils and smell from the sides via an olfactory express lane. They possess a chamber in their nasal cavity that collects odors like a perfume bottle. Their olfactory bulb, the neural tissue responsible for processing scents, is about 40 times as large as a human’s. They also know how to communicate.

“Vultures may be great,” said Otto of Penn Vet WDC, “but they don’t care.”

Otto says dogs smell in color, yet a nose is not always enough. The animals need a companion who acts as coach and cheerleader.

“It’s not as simple as you wait for the dog to sit and then you pay him,” said Sasha Garcia, a handler at the San Jose International Airport in California. “It can be pretty overwhelming reading the behavior of the animal and learning how to walk backward so you can watch the dog and not hit anything.”

As the connection grows between dog and handler, the duo learns to transmit a secret language, like spouses or twins. While patrolling an area, the handler must read the animal’s cues, which often manifest as slight behavioral changes, such as raised ears or a closed mouth. But the partnership is not equal; the dog’s hunches usually trump the human’s.

“There’s a saying: Trust your dog,” said Annemarie DeAngelo, training director at Penn Vet WDC. “Dogs don’t lie.”

As an example, DeAngelo recalled a case from her time as a New Jersey state police officer. The other cops on the scene had told her that a suspicious tractor-trailer was clear of drugs. Her partner didn’t agree. Buster uncovered 1,200 kilograms of cocaine.

“Any challenge you place in front of them, they are capable of doing,” she said, “if you explain it to them properly.”

In Australia, authorities rely on canines to uncover illegal shipments of firearms attempting to enter the country. In the United States, AMK9, a private company specializing in canine security, has Vapor Wake dogs capable of exposing weapons secreted away on bodies and inside bags. (The firm also deploys dogs to prisons, where they root out contraband cellphones.)

Auburn University’s team is looking beyond present dangers to future menaces. The researchers want to learn how dogs can identify emerging threats, both naturally occurring and cruelly triggered.

“Too often, security-related technologies, especially the use of dogs for detection, are only of interest in the moment of a tragedy or an immediate threat,” said Waggoner, the program co-director.

Otto noted a separate wave of innovation: liberating the dogs so that they can work more independently. The handler, minus the leash, will direct the animal via cameras and radio.

“The handler will have less influence on the dog and will communicate remotely,” she said.

For now, however, the handlers are bound to their partners – in more ways than one.

Garcia, the California handler, spent eight years working with Truck, a Hungarian vizsla-Labrador mix. She sent out clear signals that the dog was not a household plaything. Truck slept in a kennel outside, and Garcia hid him in the garage when friends visited so they wouldn’t baby him. She banned her husband from pet-care duties.

After Truck retired at age 8, she didn’t consider keeping him and planned to train with a new canine. Then her heart flipped.

“I can’t give this dog up,” she said. “He’s never been a dog.” She paused as the emotion welled. “I’m the only life he’s known for the last eight years. Just because I don’t treat him like a pet, he’s still my best friend and he’s loyal to me. I know that I am responsible for him.”

After her decision to adopt, she told her husband he could now feed and walk the dog.

Some uninformed observers might bristle at the idea of a working dog’s life. They might assume that the dog would prefer to spend the day lounging on a sheepskin bed or frolicking with friends in the park instead of putting in grueling hours at the office. But countless canines live to labor.

“It can be hard for the average dog owner to see stuff like that,” said Kenny Lamberti, a companion animal expert at the Humane Society of the United States.

Among animal-rights advocates, the central concern is quality of life. The animals also require frequent interaction with humans. Hugs and behind-the-ear scratches are good for the head and heart.

“It is important for the dog to have a family life and socialization,” said Vicki Berkowitz, Penn Vet WDC’s associate director. “They need to be a well-rounded dog.”

Sentiments aside, the dogs are an expensive investment; TSA budgets $25,000 to $36,000 per dog, including purchase, training and upkeep. The meter starts running in Europe. Most U.S. agencies and departments draft dogs from Old World breeders, who have a longer history and deeper experience with bloodlines than their Yankee counterparts. (During World War II, the U.S. military implored citizens to donate their pets to Dogs for Defense; thousands complied.) However, over the years, the heightened demand has elevated the cost while diminishing the quality. Otto hopes to organize a summit this fall to discuss creating a national breeding program.

“We see the threat of not having control of our own national security program,” she said.

TSA carefully monitors the health and wellness of its pack. Once a month, the dogs and handlers – 650 pairs in early March – meander down to the Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland AFB for heartworm pills and flea and tick prevention treatments. Every six months, they return for a more thorough physical.

Heavy exertion – jumping, crouching, climbing – makes the animals prone to elbow and hip dysplasia as well as spinal troubles, such as degenerative lumbosacral stenosis, or compression of the spinal cord. Small lacerations are also common, especially on paws. The attack dogs are even rougher on their bodies. The more hyper canines sometimes spin like tornadoes, thwacking their tails against hard objects.

The 32-“bed” institution is as sophisticated as a people infirmary. A dozen clinical specialists tend to most maladies, from root canals to behavioral issues. The rehab department is even outfitted with underwater treadmills and therapy pools.

The vets treat government-owned animals as well as dogs referred by clinical residents at military veterinary treatment facilities around the country and at international bases. One dog had been flown in from Guantanamo Bay.

Andres Lopez, a San Antonio airport police officer, had dropped Cora off for a CT scan. The Belgian Malinois suffered from an achy leg. Lopez fidgeted during the wait. To pass the time, he showed a guest photos on his phone. There was Cora seated in a field of bluebonnets and the pair posing in front of the Alamo.

“There’s no off button,” he said. “She’s like a rabbit. She’s always on the go. Even with her leg bothering her, she still wants to work.”

Until Cora’s recovery, Lopez was down a partner. And the world was a little less safe.

Sachs is a Washington Post staff writer.