“I loved those dogs, says Atherall. “They were lifesavers.”
There’s something heartening about this. Counterterrorism and warfare in general have lately taken a technological turn away from boots on the ground. The air is filled with guided drones, and we’re heading fast toward the day when drones guide themselves. That no doubt helps save lives, but it has given the face of war a frightening metallic cast that unnerves people, even when the machines are on your side.
There may be nothing less like a drone than a dog. It is hard to imagine a more high-hearted warrior. Dogs 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. “The best bomb dogs are the dogs that really like to play.”
This doesn’t mean that war is a lark for dogs. The daily grind of combat takes a heavy toll on four-legged grunts, too. In 2007, Army veterinarians started seeing dogs that showed signs of what they later took to calling canine post-traumatic stress disorder, for want of a more dog-centered diagnosis. Sometimes, the dogs just shut down. Other times, they became jumpy. “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. It’s more about signs than science since we can’t really ask them what’s going on,” says Walter Burghardt, chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. “Ultimately, the trained behavior of the dog can be compromised—that’s what makes this a human health concern. It can put people in harm’s way.”
Lately, the numbers for canine PTSD have been climbing, to about 50 dogs last year—between 5 percent and 10 percent of dogs on the front lines. 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. ”
Ideally, wouldn’t it be better if they all did something else for a living, something more wholesome like playing with kids or guiding the blind? After all, if they can replace a pilot with a computer, you’d think they could build a machine to out-smell a dog. It turns out they’ve been trying for years and they still can’t. Before it was shut down several years ago, a Defense Department project called Dog’s Nose developed an effective technology based on fluorescent polymers. That technology has been commercialized in a product called Fido X3, now owned by FLIR Systems. Some 3,500 portable Fido units have been sold, many for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I don’t think we’ll ever beat a dog, because our device doesn’t have a brain,” says Aimee Rose, a sales director at FLIR Systems, which had $1.5 billion in revenue in 2012. “What we do is more complementary to dogs. Dogs are just awesome!” Out at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, scientists are working on ionization technology to “see” vapors the way a dog does—the same basic technology used when security officers take a swipe at an airport, but far more sensitive. In the past year and a half, the technology has shown indications that it can pick up vapor levels of a few parts per trillion—sensitive enough to detect RDX, PETN, nitroglycerin and tetryl. On the other hand, says senior research scientist Robert Ewing, “Dogs have been doing this for years. I don’t know that you could ever replace them.”