Substance Detection Golden Retrievers: Explosives

During World War I, the British were the first to employ the talents of explosive detection canines when they were trained to find land mines. Trained dogs, with their keen sense of smell, have proven to be the most effective means known for detecting explosive materials.

While explosives detection dogs have come into increasing use by enforcement and security agencies, the need for explosive detection has skyrocketed in our post-9/11 environment. Explosives or Bomb Detection Dogs are actually now an important tool in defending America. Having to be great scent dogs, they must also maintain focus in the face of countless distractions, carefully and thoroughly search structures and vehicles for target odors, and alert when they detect the scent of an explosive. Taught to alert in a "passive" manner, these dogs are able to indicate the target odor's location without ever touching it.

Good candidates for training evidence the following: intelligence, ability to remain calm even in the presence of loud noise, ability to stay focused in the presence of distractions, and a compulsive desire to play with a toy. 

The Nose Knows (Pups for Peace)
An average human being has 125 million smelling cells in the nasal passage. In a German shepherd's nose, 250 billion smelling cells go to work to detect what the canine has been trained to find. To illustrate: A person walking down the street can pass a bakery, take a whiff, and think--bread. In comparison, a dog passing the bakery would think--flour, water, sugar, salt, yeast....

Scientists estimate that a dog's nose is from 100 to 10 million times more sensitive than a human's. In laboratory tests, explosives detector dogs were able to detect odor concentrations as small as one to two parts per billion; in several tests, the dogs detected concentrations too small to measure with current equipment, At Auburn University's Canine Olfactory Detection Laboratory, one of the lowest detection limits identified so far is 500 parts per trillion.

Dogs often work in environments that involve contact with strong odors such as car exhaust. Studies have shown that dogs are remarkably good at detecting a target odor even when mixed with high concentrations of extraneous odors. An as-yet unquantifiable combination of intelligence and smell sensitivity makes it possible for dogs to discriminate between clashing odors. They can filter out "junk smells" and zero in on one scent. The same thing happens if someone tries to mask the presence of explosives in a suitcase. An FAA dog can detect dynamite through dirty diapers, or C-4 through smelly socks. Remarkably, dogs have been known to locate a case of dynamite buried 2 ft. in the ground. This ability to discriminate between odors is important because a terrorist might try disguising a bomb with strong smells like coffee or perfume. But that's not likely to fool a well-trained bomb dog.

Research into the mechanism of dog smelling and discrimination is being conducted by the government and by private agencies with the goal of creating handheld devices to replicate a trained dog's performance; but even with the capability of detecting the smallest molecular presence in the air, no machine has yet been able to duplicate the success of a trained dog. In fact, there are still no machines sophisticated enough yet to measure the power of a dog's nose.

ATF's Explosives Detection Canine Program

Applying knowledge from its accelerant detection program, the ATF developed a scientifically based program that trains dogs to detect a myriad of different explosives. After a 10 week program, these dogs have been conditioned to detect explosives, explosives residue, and postblast evidence. Because of their conditioning to smokeless powder and other explosive fillers, these canines can also detect firearms and ammunition hidden in containers and vehicles, on persons and buried underground.  ATF certification, all dogs must pass a blind test wherein they must successfully detect 20 different explosives odors, two of which they were never exposed to during training.

 ATF uses a food and praise reward training methodology that exposes canines to five basic explosives groups, including chemical compounds used in an estimated 19,000 explosives formulas. It is believed that exposing canines to various explosives from the basic explosive families will give the dog the ability to detect the widest range of commercial or improvised explosives possible when working in the field.  Successful detection of an explosive or firearm earn the canine a food and praise reward, which encourages repetition.

As a public service, ATF sponsors educational programs and training for schools, civic groups, and other law enforcement agencies about explosives and firearms, explosives and firearms detection, and other safety issues. During many of these programs, a canine team will promote community safety issues through prevention and detection demonstrations.

Puppies Behind Bars Explosive Detection Canine Program
Because of the events surrounding September 11, 2001 and its aftermath, law enforcement agencies' need for dogs have increased. Our organization is honored to have been selected to help agencies meet these needs.

Since September 11th, a number of individuals and companies have gone into the business of training explosive detection dogs, but they have done so with very little knowledge of how to accurately train such dogs and with little regard of the quality of life the dogs have. As a result, dogs that are improperly trained, worked too hard and with too many different handlers, or are "cross-trained" (trained to sniff both bombs and drugs, for example) are making their way into public life. It is probably just a matter of time before one of these dogs misses a bomb or makes a wrong decision which could have serious consequences. By comparison, PBB is honored to work with the NYPD Bomb Squad and other law enforcement agencies because we have visited their training headquarters, we have seen the love between handlers and their dogs, we have seen the conditions under which the dogs live while they are being trained and we know that the dogs, once trained, do not live in kennels but live at home with their trainers.

Two bomb technicians from the NYPD Bomb Squad visited the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women to meet and thank the women for the work they are doing. One of the bomb sniffing dogs currently in the NYPD Bomb Squad, "Sheeba," was raised at the Edna Mahan facility and came back with her handler, Police Officer Paul Perricone, as a graduate of the NYPD's program. It was wonderful to have Officer Perricone come back and thank the inmate who raised his dog, for at that moment, it wasn't a police officer talking to an inmate; it was a bomb technician who spends his days making New York City safe for private citizens and who depends on his dog to make the right decisions speaking with the young woman who raised this incredible dog. All labels and barriers were nonexistent as two people discussed the pride and joy who sat between them, eagerly wagging her tail and looking up at people she loved.

Puppies Behind Bars gives inmates the opportunity to contribute to society rather than take from it, and lets law enforcement see that inmates are capable of doing something positive for the community.

U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement Explosive Detection Dog  (EDD) Teams

The mission of the Explosive Detector Dog (EDD) Teams is the protection of life and property and providing a strong visible and psychological deterrence against criminal and terrorist acts. Prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Federal Protective Service had a minimal program of 10 EDD Teams located in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area. Since that time, the program has expanded to more than 60 teams nationwide. These teams conduct routine explosive searches of office areas, vehicles, materials, packages and persons housed in federally owned or leased facilities. And, they respond to bomb threats and suspicious packages or items and are used to assist in clearing identified areas. Further, they deploy to special events such as the Olympic games, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and the G-8 Summit.

The Canine Training Academy is located in Fort McClellan, Alabama and is conducted in partnership with the Auburn University Canine Detection Training Center. Each handler and respective canine attends the mandatory 10-week EDD Handler Training Course. The handlers and their canine partners graduate from the course as a team. These highly trained and dedicated EDD Teams are on call 24-hours a day and serve a crucial role as part of a greater network of first responders in a growing national network of federal task force officers.

TSA's National Explosives Detection Canine Team
Law enforcement officers from all over the country travel to the our Explosives Detection Canine Handler Course at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX where they are paired with a canine teammates. These dogs are bred specifically for the program by their puppy program, also at Lackland AFB. After dog and handler are paired up, the new team completes a rigorous 10-week course to learn to locate and identify a wide variety of dangerous materials while working as an effective unit. This training includes search techniques for aircraft, baggage, vehicles and transportation structures, as well as procedures for identifying dangerous materials and "alerting" or letting the handler know when these materials are present.
Image of a puppy in front of a US flag.
The puppy program depends on volunteer families in the San Antonio and Austin, TX area.  Potential puppy walker foster homes must have a secure fenced yard, a vehicle in which  the pup can be transported, and no more than two other dogs in the home already. Puppy walkers foster the pups  in their homes from about 9 weeks until 12 months of age.

During this time they are responsible for providing the  pups with a well-rounded, socialized and nurturing environment. To help, there is an orientation before receiving the  pup, a puppy raising guidebook, and the staff is available anytime for questions or emergencies. The program also supplies food, equipment, and medical care for the puppies while in foster care. The puppies are returned to the program for one week each month for medical and behavioral evaluation, the puppy walker provided with feedback on how the puppy is developing. 

At about on year of age, the pups are returned to the program to start their official training. If interested in the becoming a volunteer Puppy walker, please complete this Puppy Walker Foster Home Application  Once the program receives your application, it will be reviewed and a staff member will contact you with further details.

Learn more about this important profession and meet some wonderful explosive detection Goldens below.


                                                      Articles and Printed Materials

     Web Resources and Groups

         A Dogged Approach to Bomb Detection
         Dog Use Dogged by Questions
     Scent as Forensic Evidence
     K9 Explosive Detection (1998 text)

       Training Dogs To Smell Terror Video
       TSA Dogs & Aviation Security
       TSA Program History
       CIA K-9 Corps Website for Kids

TaleTell: Your own Stories of  Explosives Detection  Goldens
Meet some wonderful, hard-working detectors. And, if you have an Explosive Detection Golden tale to tell, just send it, along with photos, to:
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