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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There’s no precise figure for the number of bomb dogs working today. Furton says more than 1,000 dogs have been submitted for some kind of voluntary EDC certification—there are no mandatory national guidelines, but agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Transportation Security Administration have their own standards. In all, there are more than 10,000 working dogs out there sniffing out something fishy, mostly narcotics, says Furton.

Those numbers will only climb. Each terrorist blast sends out its own bomb-dog whistle. The whistle from the recent Boston Marathon bombing was loud and particularly piercing. The Boston Police Department bomb squad did sweep parts of the course before the race, but no one holds the subsequent explosion against the dogs. The vagaries of weather and timing—it seems likely the bomb was placed after the sweep—make a sprawling outdoor event like the marathon a thankless assignment.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority operates the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center 100 yards away from where the marathon bomb went off, as well as the Boston Common Garage. The Hynes center was cordoned off as a crime scene after the bombs exploded at 2:50 p.m., and by 3:20, Robert Noonan, the authority’s chief of public safety, had called in MSA canine teams to sniff the 1,300 cars in the garage, which became a police staging area. “I expect there’s going to be a whole new look at canines,” says Noonan. “For Boston, this is a paradigm shift.”

In the days after the bombing, MSA doubled the number of its canine teams in Boston, deploying animals from as far away as Virginia to meet additional demand. “All you had to do was watch the news,” says Marc Murphy, director of MSA’s Boston operations. “The whole psyche of the city changed.”

While talking to bomb dog handlers and trainers, I kept waiting to come upon the Rin Tin Tin of EDCs, the hero dog whose intrepid snuffling saved a busload of people. It turns out there isn’t one. Well, maybe one, a German shepherd named Brandy. In March 1972, an anonymous caller threatened to blow up several TWA jets unless he received $2 million. All jets on the runway were grounded, and planes in the air turned back, among them TWA Flight 7, New York to Los Angeles. It was pure coincidence that Brandy was at John F. Kennedy International Airport. She was part of an Army-funded research project and was there to give a demonstration. Instead, she went live. Led onto Flight 7, Brandy headed straight to a briefcase labeled “crew” and filled with C4 explosive. President Richard Nixon gave the Federal Aviation Administration its own canine bomb-sniffing unit later that year.

It’s rare for a dog to find a live bomb like that, which doesn’t trouble anyone in the bomb dog business one bit. First, there’s ample evidence that these dogs are doing what they’re meant to do. Almost everyone I spoke to had stories of dogs who sat down smartly next to a police officer who, it turned out, had recently fired a handgun at a firing range or had recently handled bomb-making material.

Moreover, you don’t really want dogs finding bombs, because that means someone’s out there setting them. “It’s good to know no bombs ever got past our dogs—that’s success even if they never find a bomb,” says Michael O’Neil, MSA’s president.

Besides, a large part of a bomb dog’s mission isn’t finding bombs but deterring them. Even at $100 or more an hour, a bomb dog team is still a cheap way to keep idle threats from crippling the financial institutions that make up much of MSA’s clientele. “The cost to dump a building is insane—more millions than you could ever imagine,” says the security official of the Manhattan bank.

Where bomb dogs have really proved their mettle is on the battlefield. They find bombs on a regular basis in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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.” Det cord is the dog whistle of odors with nearly unsmellable vapor pressure. In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist at Barnard College, describes the sensitivity of a dog’s nose with an analogy. We 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.


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