George Houston, an officer with the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, and Timi, an 18-month-old German Shepherd Dog, hurry into a terminal at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The team has less than 10 minutes to locate two explosive devices.
Houston turns and begins walking backward, guiding Timi with the leash and pointing to where he wants the dog to sniff. Timi sniffs hurriedly around ticket counters, garbage cans, and chairs. Suddenly, the dog stops and sits slowly in front of a chair. Houston finds an explosive device strapped to the back of it.
“Good dog,” says Houston, who tosses Timi a red rubber Kong toy that bounces erratically across the floor. Timi pounces on the toy, but playtime only lasts a few seconds. There is still another bomb in the terminal.
Houston starts pointing again: Timi’s nose follows. Several minutes pass before Timi sits slowly, signaling that the second explosive device is in the garbage cart directly in front of her. Houston smiles and tosses the Kong to Timi who catches it in mid-air.
Thankfully, Houston and Timi are not really at Atlanta’s airport, but rather at a replica of the airport’s terminals located at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. And the bombs aren’t real. They’re training aids placed throughout the mock terminal to train dogs and their handlers to locate bombs in real-life situations.
Timi and Houston are training to become an Explosive Detection Canine Team — one of 400 such teams providing security at airports and mass transit systems across the country.
The first dog to save the day
The Explosive Detection Canine Team Program began in 1972, when Trans World Airlines received an anonymous phone call warning that there was a bomb aboard a jet leaving JFK International Airport. The aircraft returned to JFK where passengers were evacuated. A bomb-sniffing dog named Brandy found the explosive device on board, just 12 minutes before it would have blown the plane to pieces.
As a result of that life-saving moment, the Federal Aviation Administration created the EDCTP. The program only had 185 teams until the tragedy of September 11, 2001. After that day, it was transferred to the newly-created Transportation Security Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the demand for canine teams skyrocketed.
“When the airport system shut down on 9/11, we had canine teams checking airplanes and airports [throughout the country],” says Dave Kontny, director of the TSA National Detection Canine Team Training Program in Washington, DC. “When we reopened four days later, we felt confident that the airports were safe. And people felt confident, too. Crowds broke into applause whenever they saw these teams walk through the airports.”
Since 9/11 the TSA has doubled the number of canine teams through the selective breeding and buying of specific purebred dogs. Bomb-sniffing explosive detection dogs need a strong play drive and desire to search. Labrador Retrievers and Hungarian Vizslas, considered ideal for this work, are bred at Lackland AFB. German Shepherd Dogs and Belgian Malinois are purchased from breeders.
Training begins at 9 weeks old, when the puppies are placed with volunteer foster families, known as “puppy walkers.” The puppy walkers socialize and acclimate the puppies to different environments for up to a year, returning them monthly to the kennels at Lackland AFB so that TSA staff can chart their progress. The staff watches for independent puppies who are toy-driven, like to work, and are comfortable around people. Dogs who don’t make the cut are considered for a military program or put up for adoption.
Puppy walkers Jim and Ann O’Shea are working with their fifth puppy, Ashley. “We’re supposed to expose her to new things, so one week we worked on escalators,” says Jim. “She wouldn’t go up at first, so I carried her up and down a few times. Then my wife stood at the top of the stairs and bounced a tennis ball. Ashley is crazy for tennis balls. She bolted right up.”
The O’Sheas got involved in the program after 9/11. “When I saw the twin towers collapse and the Pentagon in flames, I wondered what I could do,” he says. “Then I saw an article about this program and thought, ‘I can do that. I can work with puppies.’”
The TSA pays “homage to the 9/11 victims by naming the puppies born at Lackland after them,” says Scott Thomas, program manager for the TSA Puppy Program. “The victims’ families appreciate the remembrance, even wanting to meet the puppies or show up at their graduations.”
But at 12 months old, graduation day is still six months away. Their first birthday marks the puppies’ return to Lackland AFB and the beginning of their bomb-sniffing training.
It’s all just a game
Bomb-sniffing training sounds serious, but it is just a game to the dogs who now live on base. The dogs work daily with TSA trainers who hide their toys — each dog’s favorite — under cones and encourage them to find them. “This becomes their target,” says Christopher White, public affairs manager for the TSA Southeast Region. “When they knock the cone over and retrieve the toy, they are rewarded. Then dogs learn to co-locate the toy with an explosive aid that has been placed with it. Every time the dog finds the toy, he smells the explosive aid. The dog eventually learns that an explosive odor equals some playtime, so he goes actively searching for that smell.”
After a few months, each dog is paired with an airport or mass transit officer who volunteers to spend 10 weeks learning how to work with his newly skilled canine partner. Although they are separated at night — the officer usually sleeping in housing off-base and the dog at the AFB dog kennels — they meet in the mornings to work on their bomb-searching skills.
“Timi is still a puppy, so we run and play before training,” Houston says. Then the two spend several hours looking for hidden explosive devices in mock terminals, baggage claim areas, and airplane passenger compartments. Houston works on search patterns and how to lead Timi, while Timi searches for odors that will get Houston to throw the toy. In the afternoon, Timi goes to the kennels to rest while Houston heads off to take classes on canine body language, obedience training, basic first aid, grooming care, and even canine psychology.
“I love dogs and have always wanted to work with them in law enforcement,” Houston says. “But I like to control things, too. I’m learning how to trust Timi and let her do her job. I may lead her, but she is the one who finds the explosive device.”
Dogs in the program graduate from their training at around 18 months of age. After graduation, Timi will live with Houston and his family, which includes 9-year-old Bullmastiff Diamond. “I haven’t sat down with Diamond and told him about his new roommate,” Houston says. “But I think they will like each other a lot.”
Each dog lives and works with his handler for about eight years. When the dogs retire, 99 percent of them retire with their handlers, according to White.
The TSA has canine teams stationed at more than 75 of the nation’s largest airports and 10 mass transit systems. And more teams are training every day. “In spite of all the technology that we have today, dogs are still the quickest way we have of detecting explosives,” White says. “We can’t move a detection machine on a plane or in a terminal quickly, but we can put a dog and his handler on a plane, in a baggage terminal, or on the street checking cars in just minutes.” And that saves lives.
Cathy M. Rosenthal writes the pets column for the San Antonio Express-News, as well as a blog called Animals Matter at www.mysa.com. She has more than 18 years of experience in the animal welfare field.