Dogs' noses sniff out bombs

Dogs' noses sniff out bombs

May 01, 2010

On Christmas Day, 2009, a terrorist attempted to bring down Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Despite known intelligence, this alleged suspect slipped by airport security with a PETN explosive sewn into his underwear. He boarded the plane and tried to destroy it in flight.

If a detection dog was screening that airport security area, it's likely this suspect would have been discovered and this incident could have been avoided. Because of their high olfaction sensitivity, dogs play a special role in explosive detection at airports and provide invaluable assistance to law enforcement agencies that help deter terrorism worldwide.

Dogs outperform technology

The Animal Health and Performance Program (AHPP) at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine was created with the mission to advance and disseminate knowledge in the area of animal health and performance. The AHPP is home to the Canine Detection Research Institute (CDRI) and the Veterinary Sports Medicine Program (VSMP).

The team at CDRI takes dogs' noses very seriously. A dog's nose can out-perform even the most sophisticated technology. "Dogs are sensitive, or more sensitive to at least some substances, than instrumental systems," says James M. Johnston, Ph.D., former Director of Behavioral Research at the Institute for Biological Detection Systems (IBDS) at Auburn University, now the CDRI.

"When we were developing the various detection dog applications, we realized that the dog could do even more than we were giving it credit for," says John Pearce, associate director at CDRI.

The dog's ability to detect odor is the focus of the CDRI's research and canine training program. Established in 1989, this one-of-a-kind facility is dedicated to studying canine olfaction. The Canine Detection Training Center (CDTC) is one of the largest canine detection training programs outside of the federal government. After 9/11, the CDRI established the CDTC, in order to train law enforcement agencies in dog detection principles.

After the closure of Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala., Auburn University received 320 acres and 17 facilities of the former army base for its CDTC training center with a 99-year lease.

The CDRI conducts research and provides solutions for foreign and domestic military, government agencies and private industry applications. Its varied research program includes exercise physiology, olfaction, training, conditioning, nutrition, biomechanics, general performance and field and clinical veterinary medicine. The CDRI has developed advanced training, conditioning and search protocols that have drastically improved the performance of detection dogs.

Developing the elite

According to Pearce, one of the missions of the CDRI is to develop an ultimate breed that would develop into an excellent detector dog. The Australian Customs Service gave CDRI some Labrador Retriever breeding stock to lower the inbreeding coefficient. CDRI is also evaluating other breeds for future breeding stock, such as German Short-Haired Pointers.

"We're looking at different outside-the-box applications and how we can get a dog to do various tasks," Pearce says.

Recently, the CDRI developed an improvised explosives device (IED) detection dog and a vapor wake detection dog. These novel approaches have placed the dogs in vital roles such as protecting the President of the United States and the U.S. Capitol building during the inauguration, as well as helping protect soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. These dogs also work in airports around the U.S.

The IED detection dogs have successfully served with the U.S. Marine Corps Infantry in Iraq. "We didn't lose one Marine out of those units in which those dogs were deployed," Pearce says.