Welcome to “Bomb Dog U,” Where Pooches Are Trained to Thwart Terrorism

It’s hard to conceive of a more brilliant tool than a canine’s nose for sniffing out danger in public places.

Sept_2016_WK_Smart_Dog_opener_Reed_YoungPhotograph: Reed Young

When I first meet a young Labrador named Merry, she is clearing her nostrils with nine or ten sharp snorts before she snuffles along a row of luggage pieces, all different makes and models. They’re lined up against the wall of a large hangar on a country road outside Hartford, Connecticut. This is where MSA Security trains what are known in the security trade as explosive detection canines, or EDCs. Most people call them bomb dogs.

The luggage pieces joined shrink-wrapped pallets, car-shaped cutouts, and concrete blocks on the campus of MSA’s “Bomb Dog U.” Dogs don’t need to be taught how to smell, of course, but they do need to be taught where to smell—along the seams of a suitcase, say, or underneath a pallet, where the vapors that are heavier than air settle.

In the shrouded world of bomb-dog education, MSA is an elite academy. Its teams deploy mostly to the country’s big cities, and each dog works with one specific handler, usually for eight or nine years. MSA also furnishes dogs for what it describes only as “a government agency referred to by three initials for use in Middle East conflict zones.”

Strictly speaking, the dog doesn’t smell the bomb. It deconstructs an odor into its components, picking out the culprit chemicals it has been trained to detect. Zane Roberts, MSA’s former lead canine trainer and current program manager, uses a cooking analogy: “When you walk into a kitchen where someone is making spaghetti sauce, your nose says, Aha, spaghetti sauce. A dog’s nose doesn’t say that. Instinctively, it says tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, onion, oregano.” It’s the handler who says spaghetti sauce or, in this case, bomb.

MSA’s dogs arrive at headquarters when they are between a year and a year and a half old. They begin building their vocabulary of suspicious odors by working with rows of more than 100 identical cans laid out in a grid. Ingredients from the basic chemical families of explosives are placed in random cans.

Merry works eagerly down the row, wagging her tail briskly and pulling slightly on the leash. This is a bomb dog’s idea of a good time. Snort, snort, sniff, snort, snort, sniff, snort, snort, sniff. Suddenly, Merry sits down. All bomb dogs are schooled to respond this way when they’ve found what they’re looking for. No one wants a dog pawing and scratching at something that could explode.

Sept_2016_WK_Smart_Dog_Reed_YoungPhotograph: Reed Young

“Good dog,” says Roberts. He reaches into a pouch on his belt for the kibble that is the working dog’s wage.

It would be tough to conceive of a better smelling machine than a dog. Thirty-five percent of a dog’s brain is assigned to smell-related operations, whereas a human brain lends only 5 percent of its cellular resources to the task. In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist at Barnard College, notes that while a human might smell a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee, a dog could detect a teaspoon in a million gallons of water—nearly enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools.

Where bomb dogs have really proved their mettle is on the battlefield. Before joining MSA as vice president of operations, Joe Atherall commanded Company C of the Marines 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. The unit had three dog teams attached to it.

“One day, intel directed us to a school, but we didn’t find a lot. Then we brought in the dogs,” recalls Atherall. “There were French drains around the outside of the school, and the dogs started hitting on them. When we opened them up, we found an extensive IED cache, small arms weapons, and mortar rounds, along with det cord and other explosive material.” Detonation cord is the dog whistle of odors, with nearly unsmellable vapor pressure.

“I loved those dogs,” says Atherall. “They were lifesavers.”

It is hard to imagine a more high-hearted warrior than a dog. The canines work for love, they work for praise, they work for food, but mostly they work for the fun of it. “It’s all just a big game to them,” says Mike Wynn, MSA’s director of canine training. “The best bomb dogs are the dogs that really like to play.” (If you’re adopting, know which dogs are known to bark less.)

This doesn’t mean that war is a lark for dogs. In 2007, Army veterinarians started seeing dogs that showed signs of canine post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re seeing dogs that are over-responsive to sights and sounds or that become hypervigilant—like humans that are shaken up after a car accident,” says Walter Burghardt, of the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Caught early enough, says Burghardt, half the affected dogs can be treated and returned to active duty. “The other half just have to find something else to do for a living.”

Because of the emotional wear on the dogs, scientists have been trying to build a machine that can out-smell the animals. At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, scientists are working on ionization technology to “see” vapors the way a dog does—the same basic technology used by security officers at an airport but far more sensitive.

On the other hand, says Robert Ewing, a senior research scientist, dogs have been doing this job for years. “I don’t know that you could ever replace them.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest