Substance Detection Golden Retrievers: Chemical and Biological

The use of dogs is a more recent innovation to protect against chemical and biological attacks, as terrorist activity involving such agents has become a very real threat. Chemical detector dogs are trained to detect the essential vapor signature of several different lethal chemicals.

A July 2006 article by Dawn Rumuly, a K-9 Handler/Instructor with Signature Science, LLC,  discusses the Detection of Chemical and Biological Weapons Using Canines.

Detection Technologies
With the advent of new weapons technology and trends in terrorist activity, the homeland security community must adapt with better detection systems. The ability to detect potential threats, minimize casualties, and root out false alarms is paramount. There have been some improvements in recent years in the handheld equipment used for detecting chemical and biological agents. Chemical detectors can analyze a sample in seconds if there is enough chemical present to test. However, even with these advancements, continuously searching large areas is difficult. One novel approach to this challenge is the use of canine scent detection of chemical and biological warfare agents.

Canines have long proven their worth as scent detectors, filling the technology gap in areas involving cadavers, narcotics, explosives, accelerants, and search and rescue. Their ability to work in varying environments, their portability, and their acute sense of smell have made canines invaluable assets. With the real possibility that destructive chemical and biological agents will become a weapon of choice for terrorists, a new potential use for proven canine scent detection technology has emerged.

The process of training canines to detect chem/bio agents is the same used to train dogs to detect explosives. However, proximity to these agents would be a real health concern for the canines and their handlers if actual agents were used. Two questions that must be addressed are “What materials can be used in the scent training that will not harm the canine or its handler?” and “How may canines be used in the field to find deadly agents without producing a ‘canary in the mine’ effect?”

Companies such as Signature Science, based in Austin, Texas, have led the field in canine training programs for chemical and biological agent detection. Canine teams are trained to detect scents related to chemical and biological agents that may include precursors, degradation products, and production-associated materials. In addition, the canine handlers are trained in threat agent identification and response.

Due to the hazardous nature of the agents, the primary function of the canine is to detect agents before release (in mail, luggage, shipping boxes, clothes, and on a body). The canines are not intended to be used in cases when it has already been determined that an agent is present.

The handler is the vital other half of the detection team and is the first responder at a scene. Since dogs trained to detect multiple scents do not indicate which agent they have found, a handler’s knowledge of the threats is important for initial observation. After the dog has recognized that a target scent is present and the handler has assessed the possible nature of the agent, a handheld detector could be used to show exactly what substance has been found.

At Signature Science we have personnel who could be the hazmat response team, but normally we would use whichever local resources would respond to such an incident—police, firefighters, emergency medical services, state police, or a Civil Support Team.

A handheld detector helps the team get as much information as possible for a response protocol to be initiated. The handler team could use it after withdrawing the dog and donning proper personal protective equipment. However, we suggest that the responding hazmat unit carry the instrumentation. In this regard, the incident would be handled like a bomb incident. After the dog discovers a threat, the dog and handler team leave and the explosive ordnance disposal unit comes in with the proper safety equipment to identify and disarm the weapon.

The chem/bio terrorist attacks and false alarms observed in the past decade have demonstrated the potential for high financial and human tolls. Routine screening by chem/bio canines could detect the agents before their release, preventing deaths and minimizing, if not preventing, contamination and eliminating the costs associated with response to the events. Startup and maintenance costs of a dog team are minimal compared to recovering the cost of even one incident, and the deterrence a canine team creates by maintaining the appearance of a hardened target is immeasurable.

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Bureau, the agency of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for protecting our nation's borders, deploys Chemical Detector Dogs (Chem Dogs) to the borders and ports in order to better detect attempted smuggling of chemical weapons, such as sarin and cyanide. Click here to learn more about the criminal and terrorist use of chemical and biological agents.

CBP's Canine Enforcement Training Center is considered the "Ivy League" of detector dog schools. It has been on the cutting edge of developing new detector dog capabilities to enhance and broaden the use of these canines for enforcement and security missions at our borders--especially now, in terms of safeguarding America from the international terrorist threat. Detector dogs were first introduced by U.S. Customs on a wide scale in 1970 as part of a major effort to interdict narcotics being smuggled through major air/sea and land border ports.

These dogs are currently serving in the field, working along side their handlers, in the border environment at our nation's ports and land border entry points. The chem dogs can detect chemical weapons on a pre-release basis. They are trained to sniff out specific odors, non-lethal components of a chemical. When they detect the trained odor they alert the handler, trace the odor back to the source and respond by sitting.

Relatively few applications have taken advantage of this canine capability in the environmental arena. Dogs could be used to rapidly screen houses for problems such as vapor intrusion of a variety of VOCs, identifying the presence of mildews and toxic molds, or rapidly identifying houses where illicit pesticide use has occurred. A dog and handler team could screen a room for chemical contamination in a matter of minutes and an entire residence in well under an hour. For vapor intrusion investigations, a dog could be used both to cost effectively identify the source location of the air contaminant and do follow up 'sampling' after remediation is implemented.

The Ecosystems Research Division in Athens, Georgia, a research laboratory under the auspices of EPA's Office of Research and Development, National Exposure Research Laboratory, is focusing on demonstrating the utility of dogs for indoor air quality assessments and evaluating implementation issues including cost effectiveness, animal welfare and quality assurance associated with their use.

  Detection Dog TV News Videos
   Dogs Hunt WMD U.S. Army is recruiting Black Lab puppies to help sniff out chemical weapons (July 2003)
   Mercury Detection: It's a “Ruff Job” Sniffing Dog Provides Cost-Effective Contamination Detection (December 2006)

TaleTell: Your own Stories of Chemical and Biological Detection Goldens
Meet some wonderful, hard-working 4-footed detectors. And, if you have a chemical or biological Golden sniffer tale to share, just send it, along with photos, to:


The article above contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to provide background knowledge on areas related to canine cancer. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for educational purposes.