The Education of a Bomb Dog

A top training academy works double time to meet skyrocketing demand for canines who can sniff out danger

(Reed Young)
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When I first meet a likable 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 back 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. 

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The luggage pieces joined bicycles, suitcases, 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 one of the elite academies. It currently fields 160 teams working mostly in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago and Dallas—the dogs always work in tandem with the same handler, usually for eight or nine years. MSA also furnishes dogs for what it will only describe as “a government agency referred to by three initials for use in Middle East conflict zones.”

Merry and Zane Roberts, MSA’s lead canine trainer, work their way along the line of luggage pieces, checking for the chemical vapors—or “volatiles”—that come off their undersides and metal frames. Strictly speaking, the dog doesn’t smell the bomb. It deconstructs an odor into its components, picking out just the culprit chemicals it has been trained to detect. Roberts likes to use the spaghetti sauce analogy. “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, oregano.” It’s the handler who says tomato sauce, or, as it happens, bomb.

MSA’s dogs begin building their vocabulary of suspicious odors working with rows of more than 100 identical cans laid out in a grid. Ingredients from the basic chemical families of explosives—such as powders, commercial dynamite, TNT, water gel and RDX, a component of the plastic explosives C4 and Semtex—are placed in random cans. In addition, urea nitrate and hydrogen peroxide—primary components of improvised explosive devices—have joined the training regimen.

These odors are imprinted on the dog’s brain by constant repetition and reward, Pavlov-style.

Merry is working quickly and eagerly down the row of cans, wagging her tail briskly and pulling slightly on the leash. This is a bomb dog’s idea of a good time. There are perhaps five other teams working the cans along with Merry, and none of them seems remotely interested in checking out the others. 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 blow sky-high.

“Good dog,” says Roberts, the “good” a full octave higher than the “dog” in an exaggerated singsong, before reaching into a pouch on his belt for the kibble that is the working dog’s wage. It sounds pretty silly, and new trainers often have a hard time bringing themselves to talk to dogs this way. “Dogs don’t speak English,” points out Roberts, “so the only ways to communicate are gestures and tone inflection. But just try getting a six-foot ex-cop to talk baby talk—it isn’t easy. Women handlers have a much easier time with it.”

Almost all of the dogs here arrived when they were a year to a year and a half old. Before that, they all attended an unusual canine kindergarten called Puppies Behind Bars. Gloria Gilbert Stoga founded the nonprofit program in 1997 as a way to train guide dogs for the blind, but the idea was for the prison inmates to learn as much as the puppies they live with. As one inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote in a training diary about her Labrador puppy, “Benjamin Franklin has shown me what really counts: love, honesty, giving and perseverance. It is sad I had to come to prison to learn this lesson.”

With the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001, Puppies Behind Bars entered the war on terror. First, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, one of the country’s largest bomb dog employers, came knocking. MSA stepped up shortly after. Since then, the prison program has graduated 528 working dogs, most explosive detective canines . “Every time the ATF gets more funding they say, hey, let’s get some more dogs,” says Jan Brady, who helps run the service at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey.


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