- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

FRONT ROYAL, Va. — Their mandatory retirement age is 9, when these highly trained and motivated specialists are ready for a nap, a walk and a few treats, says Lee T. Titus, supervisor of U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Those specialists include more than 850 canines — mostly Labrador retrievers and Belgian Malinois — assigned to CBP handlers from New York to Washington state in a growing effort to detect explosives, drugs, illegal aliens and other contraband.

The dogs and their handlers, all veteran agents, were trained by Mr. Titus and his staff of 50 during separate 13- and 15-week sessions at the revamped CBP Canine Enforcement Center, where dogs were trained for the Army during World War II.

The latest emphasis is on bomb-detection dogs, which are being used as the first line of defense against terrorist threats at the nation’s 300 ports of entry in the wake of the September 11 attacks. They also are essential in checking airplanes and railroad cars.

“The mission is interdiction, and we’re looking to put quality antiterrorism teams at the nation’s borders to protect against that threat,” said Mr. Titus, a 24-year veteran.

“Our highest priority is quality control. Not a single dog leaves here who isn’t 100 percent ready,” he said. “In fact, the dogs learn faster than the handlers. If I could teach these dogs to type and drive, I’d really be in business.”

Before the dogs are deployed, they must be certified and are re-evaluated every six months. They must be able to detect several different odors involving explosives and other chemical weapons, including propellants used in missiles, charges used in bombs and chemical agents used as toxics.

CBP is the first federal agency to train its dogs to detect the odor of explosives on people, as well as in cargo or vehicles.

The animals were purchased from vendors or rescued from shelters, and each possesses a strong desire to retrieve items, high intelligence, enthusiasm, drive and the ability to interact with the public, Mr. Titus said. They also come from an on-site breeding program that aims to ensure the dogs’ quality.

In March 2003, the Department of Homeland Security was created and CBP was born, bringing together four different canine programs: those of the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Customs, the Border Patrol, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It gave CBP the distinction of having more canine teams than any other federal agency.

Each of CBP’s 851 canine-handler teams in the field specialize in one area of detection; explosives, drugs or other contraband, all of which are taught at the Front Royal center.

Mr. Titus said the new explosives focus prompted the restructuring of a passive training system to ensure that the dogs and their handlers are safe if explosives or other dangerous chemicals are found.

Under the old system, which is still in place for detecting drugs and other contraband, the dogs search for a specific odor and scratch at the spot of the discovery until they are rewarded with a towel thrown by the handler. For explosives, the dogs immediately sit when they score a “hit” and are rewarded with the towel.

“It’s a game for the dogs,” Mr. Titus said. “They’re anxious every day to get out in the field because they think they’re going out to play. All they have to do is find that towel, which means they have found explosives or drugs or other contraband. And that’s good.”

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