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‘Vapor wake detection’ dogs are singular breed

You’d expect a sensor that can find someone carrying a bomb in a briefcase among a throng of moving people with only a thin trail of molecular particles to guide it would be a bundle of blinking lights, hanging wires and digital readouts, not an animal walking on four legs, panting and wagging its tail.

That is, however, how one accurate and reliable sensor operates. Detection dogs, a long-time tool used to find illicit substances, are becoming more adept at applying their age-old olfactory talents through targeted and intense development programs at Auburn University’s Canine Detection Research Institute (CDRI) in Alabama.

CDRI, established in 1989, has more than 20 years of directed research activities involving canine detection and the process of sniffing out trouble, or as CDRI puts it “canine olfaction.” The program is the largest dedicated canine detection research program in the U.S. and its associated Canine Detection Training Center is one of the largest canine detection training programs outside the federal government, according to the university.

A canine’s abilities to detect minute scents and decipher human commands have been valued for millennia, but it’s only been in the last century or so that canine scenting abilities have been honed to detect illicit substances at human command. CDRI’s Vapor Wake Detection (VWD) dogs take basic detection skills and training a step further. They are created and trained for a singular purpose – “to detect explosives that are worn or carried,” John Pearce, associate director at CDRI told Government Security News

The idea sprang, he said, from the need to thwart suicide bombers in Iraq. With the advent of regular clothing-born bombs, or small hidden, easily-carried explosive devices, spreading around the globe, detecting explosives on a person, or in what a person is carrying, has become a global necessity. 

While explosives detection and checkpoint screening equipment is stationary, detection dogs can work all types of venues, and after explosives are identified, can continue to work the checkpoint or track the identified source, said CDRI. That mobility gives VWD dogs their edge. 

CDRI’s program has become so successful, it patented the VWD training and trademarked the “Vapor Wake Detection” name. 

“We rarely have a dog that isn’t spoken for,” said Pearce. 

The program reaches beyond the standard explosive detection capabilities other dogs are trained with, he said, because VWD-trained animals can find explosives while they are in motion being transported, which can be extremely valuable in locations through which large volumes of people move. VWD dogs sample the plume of air coming off a person -- or what they are carrying -- as the person passes through a choke point or within a crowd, according to CDRI. This capability allows their use in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, without slowing traffic flow. The dogs can also find a trail in an area a quarter of an hour after the explosives have moved on, and track it to the explosive source, much like a bloodhound tracking an escaped prisoner or lost child, said Pearce. 

The dogs can be custom-trained from the start on a specific explosives’ unique odors, with supplemental training added to detect other odors as needed, according to Pearce. 

Pearce wouldn’t estimate how far off an explosive might be before it could be detected by the dogs. He said that depends on a myriad of environmental issues that are particular to each site at which a dog is used. “Weird wind currents” and other things can spread out, or concentrate, a trail, for instance, he said. Ultimately, the dogs and their handlers need to work an area over time to understand those environmental quirks and how to take advantage of them, he explained. 

Although Pearce declined to name security agencies currently using VWD dogs, train stations, airports, stadiums and other areas with large, mobile crowds would seem to be ideal for them. According to news reports, Amtrak deployed the dogs in an October “Regional Alliance Including Local, State and Federal Efforts” (RAILSAFE) security trial on its system. One Amtrak police inspector called the VWD dogs “the Michael Jordans of the explosive detection world.” The New York City Police Department also plans to deploy the canines in its security efforts, according to reports. 

The dogs are so good at what they do because, said Pearce, they’re specifically bred and raised for one thing -- finding moving explosives. The program began in 2000 with research and continued over the next few years with breeding based on retriever stock obtained from the Australian Customs Service crossed with American hunting Labrador Retriever stock in the U.S., he said. Puppies with a knack for the training and a talent for sniffing out explosives were selected and bred by CDRI, which has resulted in dogs that are genetically-wired for the job, according to Pearce.

CDRI’s training program for the dogs begins, surprisingly, in a prison. The institute has a program with Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) that places puppies in prison facilities for basic training and acclimation. CCA houses approximately 75,000 offenders and detainees in more than 60 facilities across the country. It also partners with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).


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