FRONT ROYAL, Va. Find a bomb, get some kibble. Find a gun, get some more kibble.
That’s the message drilled into the dogs at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ (ATF) Canine Training Center, which turns out about 50 Labrador retrievers each year to sniff out bombs, guns and all kinds of explosive materials.
The ATF facility trains dogs not only for itself, but for local, state, federal and international police agencies. The Front Royal dogs are now used by K-9 officers in 38 states and 12 countries.
Since September 11, demand for the dogs has increased significantly.
“I used to get about one call a week asking about our program. Now I get four or five,” said Shawn Crawford, one of about 10 dog trainers at the ATF site.
The standards the dogs must meet are strict. In their final test, the dogs are given 80 unmarked samples, including 20 with explosive material. The dogs must identify all 20 explosive samples, and are allowed just two “false positive” errors mistaking an innocuous sample for an explosive.
The dogs undergo a 16-week training process in which they learn to work with a specific handler to identify five nitrogen-based compounds that are essential to almost every explosive and firearm. Any time the dog correctly identifies the explosive, it sits quietly to alert its handler. If the dog is correct, it is rewarded with food.
In fact, the only time the dogs ever eat is when they identify an explosive material. That means the dog’s handler must practice with his dog every day, allowing it to identify explosive samples to earn its sustenance.
The system also ensures that dogs won’t be distracted from their work by the scent of a salami on rye.
“We train them to ignore novel odors that a normal dog would be attracted to,” Mr. Crawford said. “They’re conditioned pretty quickly to learn that if they smell food, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to eat food.”
The food-reward system is very different from that employed by the U.S. Customs Service, which also trains its dogs at a nearby site in Front Royal, about 60 miles west of the District.
Customs dogs are trained to sniff out narcotics and currency, not explosives. A dog that identifies those substances will respond by pawing and biting at the material, and will be rewarded with a game of tug-of-war.
But Carl Newcombe, acting director of the Customs Service’s canine program, said the agency is considering a change in focus to train its dogs to sniff out explosives as well as narcotics. That would require a change to a food-reward system with a passive response.
“Based on our current objectives, anti-terrorism is now our No. 1 priority. So we may be training our own explosive dogs,” Mr. Newcombe said. “If you had a dog finding explosives, you wouldn’t want it pawing and scratching at the target location.”
Both agencies use Labrador retrievers as their dogs male or female, all colors. The Customs Service will use some other breeds, including German shepherds and mixed breeds. Mr. Crawford said the dogs don’t necessarily have better noses, but their easygoing temperament makes them ideal.
The dogs need to be able to operate in noisy environments and be friendly, Mr. Crawford said.
“People are going to pet them. They’re a magnet. But as soon as they’re done getting petted, they get right back to work,” he said. “They’re fantastic public relations. They’re good with children.”
Because of the increased demand for the dogs, the ATF hopes it will receive additional funding to expand its training program.
The Customs Service also has had increased inquiries for dogs from police agencies, but most of the dogs trained by Customs are used by the agency itself. Customs trains about 100 dogs a year, but has 500 active dog-and-handler teams, Mr. Newcombe said.
ATF, on the other hand, has just five special agents who regularly work with dogs.
With the ATF’s dogs in use all over the world, the bureau hears success stories on a regular basis. A few years ago, an ATF-trained dog in Egypt alerted a SWAT team to the presence of explosives. The agents later learned that the door they were about to knock down was booby-trapped with 40 pounds of dynamite. The Egyptian police sent a note back to Front Royal: “Your dog saved 11 lives.”
Mr. Crawford said he is glad that more police agencies are starting to recognize the role a bomb-sniffing dog can play. The ATF provides the training to police agencies for free. Once completed, that agency has a low-cost, low-tech, highly effective crime-fighting tool.
“If you can’t afford a few bucks for dog food and teeth cleaning, something’s wrong,” Mr. Crawford said.