I recently read an article put out by www.smithsonian.com on bomb sniffing dogs. Holy cow was it an interesting read! It detailed what they had to go through for training and what was expected of them. I always view service dogs of any kind with a type of reverence. Even though these dogs have no clue what we’re putting them through, that little detail seems almost irrelevant. These dogs lead what I consider the ideal type of existence for a dog. They have the training to know what is expected of them (in general – not just bomb/drug/police specific) and they also have a job to do, a purpose. If I could take my dog to work with me everyday, helping me with anything and everything, I know that this would enrich his existence all the more.
It didn’t go into a lot of detail about their training, just mentioning that they (obviously) needed to be taught where to sniff. Such as along seams (of luggage) and underneath pallets etc. They line up over a hundred identical cans and scatter the “target” scents into various cans. They use positive reinforcement (which I love). I thought it was interesting to note that they don’t actually smell a bomb. They “pick out certain culprit chemicals they have been trained to detect.” This makes sense to me. There are certain ingredients that make up a bomb, identify some of the key components and you have what you need. They are trained to lay down when they scent something suspicious, which makes more sense than barking. Much better to train them to do something subtle and low-stress versus something loud and attention-grabbing.
They are trained at MSA Security which is in Hartford, Connecticut. It is an elite academy that trains dogs. They typically work with their handler for 8 or 9 years. I browsed their website. They seem pretty legit. They’ve been certified by the Department of Homeland Security. They don’t kennel their dogs, and they only have one handler. Apparently they retain ownership of the dog. I suppose that I assumed whatever policing agency using the dogs has a specific person who “handles” the dog. All of their handlers also have certain types of training. The article quotes one of the lead trainers of the academy as they talk about how a dog’s nose works, “When you walk into a kitchen where someone is cooking spaghetti sauce, your nose says aha, spaghetti sauce. A dog’s nose doesn’t say that. Instinctively, it says tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, onion, and oregano.” It also goes on to mention that a while a human might be able to pick out the scent of sugar in a cup of coffee, a dog’s nose could detect a teaspoon in a million gallons of water (which equal about 2 Olympic-sized swimming pools). I love analogy’s like this because they evoke a clear picture of how sensitive a dog’s nose really is. Anatomically, a dog’s nose makes up the area from the nostrils to the back of the throat.
These dogs don’t start out at MSA Security. They go to a “puppy kindergarden” called Puppies Behind Bars. A nonprofit program that started out using inmates to train dogs for the blind. They have graduated 528 working dogs, most of them explosive detective dogs.
These dogs are invaluable. Previous attempts to create mechanical “bomb sniffing” machines have failed.
I feel like German Shepards are the most common types of service dogs. They mention that the best breeds for bomb sniffing are German Shepards, Belgian Malinoise, and Laborador Retrievers. They’ve done their homework on the different breeds that would be best for the job as the article goes into a few other breeds and what challenges they have when training for this type of an occupation.
Bomb dogs predictably made a comeback after 9/11, though they were used before. There are no national mandatory guidelines regarding how exactly a bomb dog needs to be trained. However, different agencies that utilize these dogs have their own set of standards. It is estimated that there are about 10,000 working dogs out there sniffing it up. The majority of these are used for narcotics.
These dogs typically go for a cool $100 or more an hour and I have no idea what this includes. From the look of the website, you can hire these dogs out for different reasons. They sited different businesses that might do so, like banks and schools and such.
The last part of the article talked about the stress disorders that have been identified in some of these dogs who are working in war zones. This makes complete sense to me. Having seen dogs with anxiety and compulsive issues, it doesn’t surprise me at all that a dog working in a high stress (super-high stress) environment would undergo some sort of behavioral changes based on this. They said that in 2007, army veterinarians started identifying dogs that showed signs of what they later would call Canine PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The symptoms could be anything from shutting down to being hypersensitive or jumpy. They would become over-responsive to sighs or sounds or become hyper-vigilant. This type of thing isn’t an “exact science.” The numbers seem to be climbing 5-10% of dogs on front-line situations are showing symptoms. If it is caught early, something around half can be treated and returned to active duty. The rest have to go into early retirement. I’d love to learn more about long-term affects that these dogs suffer. Do they continue to show symptoms after being retired like people do? Dogs are so resilient. I love the idea of them being able to help us in this capacity and I hate the idea that we are giving them some sort of lasting problems. I’ll have to do more reading up on this subject.
Read the full article here. All the quotes are from the article. All the information is either from the article or from the MSA Security website.