In the war against terrorism, the United States is getting help from an old friend. After the Sept. 11 attacks, search-and-rescue dogs helped rescue workers search for any survivors among the ruins. They were honored, along with emergency personnel, by being invited to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
Now, dogs trained to sniff out bombs and other threats are helping to stand guard against further terrorism on American soil and overseas. In airports, seaports, on military bases and at large public gatherings, these dogs offer reassurance to a sometimes jittery populace.
At Tampa International Airport, for instance, police reported that people are visibly calmer and more relaxed with dogs on duty. Passengers interviewed say the dogs give them a more secure feeling.
There are now a lot more dogs, and in a lot more places.
The "Dog School" at Lackland Air Force Base, in Texas, has added classes to its schedule to train more dogs for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Secret Service and the Department of Defense. Officially called the 341st Training Squadron, the school had provided about 300 dogs each year, trained to sniff out bombs, drugs or to help guard high-level dignitaries.
The 341st Squadron is the largest dog training school in the world. Formally known as the Department of Defense Military Working Dog School, it was brought under the wing of the Air Force, which had started its own training program for dogs in the early 1970s.
Besides all major airports (and now many smaller ones), these dogs are deployed in hot spots that have a substantial U.S. military presence, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They are also in American embassies worldwide.
A large number of military working dogs are in Afghanistan, helping soldiers de-mine the ravaged countryside.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, much information about these dogs has been restricted, especially the numbers and places where the dogs are on patrol. A police spokesman at Miami International Airport, for instance, said it is their policy to not comment on any security arrangement – including dogs. "Before Sept. 11, we would have loved to talk all about it," he said.
Air Force spokesman Edgar Castillo did say that dogs are no longer used for wartime scouting and sentry duty as they were in previous conflicts. He characterized their role as "police work," even in a military setting.
Purchase teams have traveled throughout Europe to find purebred German shepherds and Belgian malinois, the dogs favored by the school. Castillo said the school prefers getting dogs from Europe because the breeds are kept scrupulously pure. "In the United States, most dogs are related," he said. This increases the chance of hip dysplasia and other abnormalities, which automatically disqualifies a dog.
However, the 341st Squadron has started its own breeding program, which will lessen the need to scour Europe for suitable recruits.
Most state and local law enforcement agencies, and some federal ones, must rely on other sources. Many dogs are drop-outs from guide dog training schools. Guide dogs must meet stringent criteria before they can graduate and help guide the blind. For instance, they must have especially calm temperaments.
But drop-outs get the basic training that can make them excellent candidates for other types of work, such as bomb-sniffing.
Private industry is also ramping up "production" of these dogs. Global Training Academy, in Texas, has seen a 75 percent jump in demand for bomb-sniffing dogs since Sept. 11. The academy trains dogs for local and state law enforcement agencies, as well as de-mining dogs for the U.S. State Department. "There's been a definite increase in the last month," co-owner Jim Parks said.
Training for military dogs or those used in civilian police departments is very similar. Puppies are exposed to large gatherings, noise, machinery and cars. During the socialization period, which lasts about 8 weeks, the dogs are tested for their drive to complete tasks and how they react to different situations.
When they are 1 year old, the dogs go into more intense training, which can last 10 to 22 weeks, depending on what the dog's mission will be, and the school where the training is done. At Lackland, dogs spend 3 weeks undergoing patrol training, followed by 8 weeks of specialized training to detect bombs or drugs. They are rarely cross-trained, because you don't want to guess whether the dog is detecting drugs or bombs.
To purchase and train the dogs is expensive. Each dog can cost between $2,000 and $10,000, depending on the breed and the type of training. But with a 98 percent success rate in detection, these dogs are worth more than their weight in gold.