The Education of a Bomb Dog

We know and love dogs as our family pets and even as our family members. They bring us endless joy and companionship at home, but they are also highly intelligent creatures that provide us with many practical uses and important jobs as well. One of the most important jobs we train dogs for is explosives detection in airports, threatened areas, highly populated events, or on the battlefield. With their excellent ability to smell, dogs make the perfect partner to police and safety forces in detecting potentially dangerous situations. But how does a dog become a bomb-sniffing expert? We’ve got the answers.

When we think good sniffers, we think dogs. These animals are constantly using their noses to explore their surroundings and make judgments on the people and other animals they encounter. A dog’s brain actually devotes 35% to smells and smell-related operations while a human brain only devotes 5%.

Furthermore, as Smithsonianmag.com explains, “When air enters a dog’s nose, it splits into two separate paths—one for breathing and one for smelling. And when a dog exhales, the air going out exits through a series of slits on the sides of a dog’s nose. This means that exhaled air doesn’t perturb the dog’s ability to analyze incoming odors; in fact, the outgoing air is even thought to help new odors enter. Even better, it allows dogs to smell continuously over many breathing cycles—one Norwegian study found a hunting dog that could smell in an unbroken airstream for 40 seconds over 30 respiratory cycles.”

But it’s not just about their ability to smell. There are plenty of other animals that have higher smelling abilities than dogs including bears, elephants, and rats. However, bringing a bear into an airport to sniff for explosives is probably not anyone’s idea of a safe situation. Dogs on the other hand love to play and please their human companions, making them easily trainable to stay calm in delicate situations and fine-tune their noses for a specific purpose. Even as scientists work to create technology to detect things the way dogs do, it’s hard to compare against the brain of these intelligent and trainable animals.

Dogs usually start training between 1 and 3 years old. It only takes a dog 2-4 months to learn the basics of bomb sniffing, but they continually undergo training and testing throughout their careers to make sure their skills stay sharp. The goal is to get the dog to arrive at the area in questions, sniff for the bomb, and promptly sit once they have found it (this is a universal sign).

Training these dogs means lots of repetition and awards (treats, toys, or lavish praise). First, trainers must train dogs to be interested in the smell of explosives, or rather various chemicals and ingredients that typically make up explosives. They present the dog with an explosive or ingredient and each time the dog sniffs it, he receives a reward.

Next, the trainer hides the explosive or ingredients and if they dog starts sniffing to find it, they receive another treat. Then, the dog must be trained to sit promptly and calmly once they have actually found it and receive, again, another treat (it would put both the dog and anyone around in danger if the dog were to nudge or paw at the questionable explosive). The training is vigorous and must be taken seriously, especially since the cost in training these dogs costs more than what many of us pay for a college degree. According to HowStuffWorks.com, the TSA pays $218,000 in startup training costs for explosive sniffing dogs and then pays $158,000 each year after that. This money covers the salary of the dog handler, the dog’s food, veterinary costs, kenneling, training, and certification.

Each dog is assigned a handler who goes through the training process with them to recognize when their specific dog gets tired, what characteristics they show when they are sniffing for a bomb, and how their attitude is when they find the bomb and sit. The dog lives with its assigned handler and effectively acts as a partner. Usually when a bomb-sniffing dog reaches retirement age, the dog will continue living with its handler as the family dog and often, lifelong friend.

Although training is the most important thing, the TSA does prefer certain breeds for bomb-sniffing including German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherd Malinois, Vizslas, and Labrador Retrievers because these dogs are excellent smellers, they stay calm in crowds, and they like to play (meaning they’re all about a good training plus rewards program, they see it as a game).

However, dogs don’t have the patience humans do to clock in an eight-hour shift every day. Dogs are scheduled for short shifts and it is up to their handler to recognize when a dog is losing focus. Obviously not every shift produces a bomb find, so to keep their skills and interest peaked, a bomb-sniffing dog does actually “find” an explosive on every shift in a mock terminal situation.

However, as much as these lovable creatures enjoy their jobs and the “game” they get to play each day in doing them, being a bomb-sniffing dog is hard work and is not without its consequences. The police and military forces do an excellent job to keep these dogs happy and healthy, but a life on the job, especially for military bomb-sniffing dogs can result in a dog form of PTSD and exhaustion. So let’s not take these wonderful dogs for granted in working hard to keep us safe on a regular, sometimes daily, basis.

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