- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Max appeared bored, stirring and fidgeting during the graduation ceremony. But he didn’t draw the attention of the audience and his fellow graduates until he let out a yelp. And then it only took a scratch behind the ears to calm him down.

The 2-year-old golden Labrador retriever and his handler, U.S. Marshal Michael Pyo, were among six teams that graduated from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) explosives detection course this week.

They will join hundreds of other bomb dogs that ATF officials say are becoming more popular among state and local law enforcement agencies as practical and non-threatening weapons against terrorism.

Acting ATF Director Michael Sullivan said there has been a spike in the demand for bomb dogs since the September 11 terrorist attacks because they are more effective and more mobile than machines but also because of the way they are perceived by the public.

Mr. Sullivan said people generally feel more comfortable around dogs than heavily armed law officers or soldiers, like the ones who patrolled airports and transit systems after the terrorist attacks.

“As a country, we have never been familiar with armed police officers beyond their typical sidearm,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Most people have an affinity for pets and, in particular, dogs.”

From 1995 to 2001, the ATF trained an average of 34 canine teams a year, officials said. Since September 11, the number has jumped to 53 dog teams a year.

The bomb dogs, which train at ATF’s 250-acre campus in Front Royal, Va., are handsome, well-groomed Labradors that are friendly to strangers even before their training.

CIA officer Matt Stanley, who graduated with his second dog, Troy, said people are usually fascinated by his dog.

“They couldn’t care less about me,” said Mr. Stanley, a 10-year agency veteran. “First they see the dog, then they look up the leash and say, ‘Oh there is somebody attached.’ ”

The ATF employs 35 canine teams and has trained 108 teams currently deployed nationally with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. There are also ATF-trained teams in 21 foreign countries.

The ATF gets the dogs between the ages of 18 months and 2 years from a number of organizations, such as Puppies Behind Bars or Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which rescue dogs or train them to be service animals.

For six weeks the dogs are conditioned to pick up the scents of thousands of combinations of explosives and to ignore all other scents — including food.

They spend 10 weeks training with their handlers, with whom they spend nearly every moment for the rest of their lives to ensure the handlers are familiar with their dogs’ response to explosives.

“I can work any dog out there, but there are certain things that are going to be specific to my dog,” said Mr. Pyo who is handling his second dog. “It’s the little nuances. It happens in split seconds.”

At the graduation ceremony, on the grounds of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Canine Training Facility in Front Royal, the newest class of trainees eagerly stuck their noses between the bars of their pens to be pet by a group of puppy raisers.

Paul and Joyce Kenneally, of North Falmouth, Mass., came to the facility to see their former dog, Laverne, graduate.

As puppy raisers, they taught Laverne basic house manners — “no chairs, no couches, no beds” — and socialized her with people and other dogs.

Mr. Keneally said he was proud of Laverne and saw early on the puppy had a bright future ahead of her.

“She was too smart for me,” Mr. Keneally said. “She was ahead of me the whole time.”

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