The bomb squad that barks
Just after dawn on a recent May morning, Ajax, a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, eagerly worked his way through a sparsely furnished room sniffing for explosives. On his third try, he picked up a scent behind a piece of furniture near the front of the room.
“Good dog, good dog,” said Andrew Baxter, his trainer, who reached into a pouch and threw Ajax a squeaky toy, much to the dog’s delight.
Ajax is one of 230 dogs at the Transportation Security Administration’s facility here on Lackland Air Force Base training to become bomb-sniffing canines. Dogs that pass the course will be deployed to the nation’s airports, the first line of defense against terrorist bomb attacks.
The assignment is becoming increasingly difficult as terrorists adopt techniques using household chemicals to construct bombs that make it hard even for a dog’s sensitive nose to discern.
“So we’re now asking dogs not just to find a needle in a haystack – now we’re also saying to the dog, ‘We need you to find any sharp object in the haystack,’” said Clive Wynne, a professor at Arizona State University. He is leading a study funded by the Office of Naval Research to develop methods to train dogs to identify a wide variety of common ingredients that could be used to make bombs.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government has spent billions on technologies to emulate the nose and brain of a trained bomb dog, which can detect minute traces of explosives. And while researchers have made progress, when it comes to accuracy, nothing quite beats the nose of a dog.
“Dogs can detect a teaspoon of chemical in a million gallons of water – nearly enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools,” said Craig Angle, a professor in Auburn University’s Canine Performance Sciences program. “They perform at a really high level. They’re like the Peyton Mannings or Brett Favres of canines.”
But the increase in explosive devices using common household chemicals has put that ability to the test, particularly in detection of the compound TATP, a favorite of terrorist groups.
240 the estimated number of smokeless powders
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the Saudi who designed the device used by the so-called underwear bomber on a 2009 flight to Detroit, is believed to be at the forefront of these new terrorist bombmakers. Intelligence officials say Asiri built sophisticated devices by using new types of explosives that intelligence officials had not seen previously and enclosed them in caulk to prevent leakage of the vapors that dogs could detect.
Wynne and other researchers are teaching dogs not only how to detect explosive ingredients but also to determine if what they smell could combine to form an explosive mixture. In other words, the dogs are being asked to identify a bomb before it becomes a bomb.
“There are more than 240 different types of smokeless powders alone,” said Danny Diller, the training supervisor at the canine training center here at Lackland. “We can’t train them on all explosives.”
And, he said, the agency is adjusting its training in response to events like the London subway bombings in 2005 and the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, to bring down an airliner, which led to training dogs for mass transit and passenger screenings.
“We are hoping through all the variety, they will be able to generalize across the spectrum,” Diller said.
The Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency of the TSA, has expanded its use of dogs to help screen passengers in airport security lines. Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, recently announced the deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs to larger airports where long security lines have not only increased the wait but provided a vulnerable target for an attack like the one in March at the Brussels Airport.
Intelligence officials say the Saudi who designed the device used by the so-called underwear bomber has built sophisticated devices using new types of explosives and enclosed them in caulk to prevent leakage of the vapors that dogs could detect.
Almost all of the dogs here at Lackland, purchased mainly in Eastern Europe through a Defense Department program, arrived when they were a year to a year and a half old. The best breeds for training to find bombs, according to the TSA, are Belgian Malinoises, Labrador retrievers and German shorthair pointers.
Dogs like Ajax are trained to detect explosives in a variety of environments. Some dogs undergo 15 weeks of training to sniff out explosives, while others train for 25 weeks specifically to detect chemicals among passengers. Seventeen warehouses here contain mock airports settings, including cargo bays and even a room with a replica of the interior of a 747 aircraft. Dogs are also trained to operate on trains and aircraft.
TSA trainers began the dogs’ instruction by teaching them to recognize the scent of various chemicals that are commonly used in explosives such as TNT, C4, commercial dynamite and Semtex. The exact chemical combinations that the TSA dogs can detect are closely guarded.
Once the dogs learn to recognize the odors, they are given a toy as a reward. They are then put through a variety of training settings, from detecting explosives in a sparsely furnished room to finding odors in an area set up to look like a crowded airport boarding area.
“We keep throwing different situations at them until it doesn’t matter,” said Jerry Wilson, a training instructor at the center. “We want them to be comfortable in any environment.”
Dogs can detect a teaspoon of chemical in a million gallons of water – nearly enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. They perform at a really high level. They’re like the Peyton Mannings or Brett Favres of canines.
Craig Angle, a professor in Auburn University’s Canine Performance Sciences program
Despite the intense training, the instructors here say that instances in which dogs find an actual bomb are rare. But they are not worried. The dogs are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. More important, the instructors say, a major part of a bomb-sniffing dog’s mission is deterrence.
“But we still need to do constant training and practicing for that one time that they are needed,” said Robert Gravel, a training instructor.
It is an expensive proposition. The TSA has invested heavily in its canine detection program, recently building a new $12 million training center here that employs about 93 people. The center also trains dogs and handlers for state and local law enforcement agencies.
More than 900 canine teams are deployed across the country, at a cost last year of about $121.7 million.
Not every dog makes it through the course, and some have to return for additional training for a variety of reasons, like aggression issues.
Even dogs that pass their training can make mistakes. Instructors here say dogs have been known to sit down next to a police officer, indicating the presence of explosives. But the officer had only recently fired a handgun at a firing range or handled bomb-making material.
“They are great tools,” said Lawrence Myers, a former professor at Auburn’s canine training center. “But do they lie and get things wrong? Yes, they do. Sometimes it’s as simple as ‘I want my reward, so what do I have to do for it?’ ”
A 2011 study by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that handlers can influence the behavior of dogs, getting them to indicate the presence of explosives or drugs even when none were present.
Despite these issues, dogs remain the best method of detecting bombs. TSA and other counterintelligence officials are hoping that the Arizona State University research by Wynne can help provide better training for dogs to detect homemade bombs.
“It is essential we engage the dog’s brain in considering the whole complexion of what they smell and making smart decisions about whether this can be a bomb or not,” Wynne said.