Bomb-sniffing dogs are an impressive lot. No technology can compare to their skill, mobility, accuracy, or cute factor.
But this weeks headlines are hinting that some airport-based sniffers havent been quite up to snuff recently.
A dog at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport caused a false alarm that led to airport evacuations. He had a good excuse. The bag may have been used in explosive tests before, and still had some residue. Or airport officials say it may have had traces of a chemical the dog was trained to detect, although not an explosive.
A bomb-sniffer and his handler in Slovakia made a boo-boo and let a test explosive fly in a passenger plane to Ireland. (It wasnt the dogs fault.)
All three TSA bomb-sniffing dogs at Philadelphia International Airport recently flunked tests and were decertified, but still working at the airport. This caused Congressman Bob Brady to go ballistic.
They don’t retrain them. They gotta retrain and recertify them. It’s not the dogs fault! The dogs can’t say ‘I can’t smell a bomb,’ ” he told a WPVI reporter.
Its true. The dogs cant say, I cant smell a bomb. Nor can they say Hey, cant you give me a reward now even though I havent smelled an explosive in, like, eons? Or, Im so excited to smell the cheese that guy sneaked into his suitcase! No, handler, its not a bomb! Its Limburger! Wait, dont close down the airport!
Some 700 bomb-sniffing dogs are stationed at airports, train stations, and other travel hubs around the US, according to the TSA. They go through months of intensive training in Lackland, Texas, to qualify as bomb-sniffers. Check out this ABC video to get an inside view of sniff school. It looks like dogs have a ball!
“Canines are a great bomb detection capability,” TSA administrator Kip Hawley told ABC. “First off, they all do a great job at detecting bombs. Second, they’re very mobile. You can move them anywhere, including an airport environment, mass transit environment, and they’re extremely flexible in the way we can use them.”
Yet because of the occasional olfactory confusion or communications breakdowns between handler and dog, some people are calling for more explosive-detecting machines, and fewer dogs. The machine never gets tired,” Douglas Laird, who runs an aviation security consulting firm in Reno, told Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).
But the machines are prohibitively expensive. And as we saw earlier this week, theyre far from infallible. An explosive-detecting machine at a Bakersfield, Calif., airport, found TNT in a suitcase. The airport was evacuated and shut down. But there was no TNT. The suitcase just contained bottles of honey.
Dogs do err, on occasion. “Sometimes they’ll try to cheat,” Patrick Beltz, a longtime dog trainer and owner of California-based Work Dogs International, told MPR. “Other times, it can be really just a mistake. If they want to too bad, they might smell something.”
An important factor in bomb-sniffing success is for the handler to know the dogs signals very well, Beltz said. If the handler cant tell if the dog is getting excited about explosives or another object, there could be a problem.
“It could be sausage somebody’s carrying to a family, Beltz told MPR. It’s a big difference between a dog showing, well, this smells good, versus saying ‘Whoa, I think I’m near [explosives].
So as it often boils down to when theres a problem with a dog, its at least partly in the hands of a human. We hope recent headlines dont result in machines replacing these magnificent nosey dogs at airports. Flying the friendly skies just wont be the same without them.