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Ready, Willing, and Able to Serve

Dogs are hard workers. As long as they feel like it, have nothing better to do, and it doesn’t involve emerging from the closet during the Fourth of July, they won’t turn up their nose at any task.

Transportation, for instance, has long been an important career choice for dogs. They pull sleds, guard pack trains, and deliver little casks of brandy strapped to their collars. All for very little reward, besides the kibble.

Now, the people in charge of keeping our homeland safe and our airports slow are pushing for even more.

The Department of Homeland Security says it maintains more than 4,000 “explosives detection canine teams spread across the federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement community.”

That’s a lot of “K9” firepower, as dogs are universally known in the global military-security complex. DHS and its Science and Technology Directorate have a plan to do more with this shaggy four-legged force. They’ve launched the Regional Explosives Detection Dog Initiative, or REDDI. A series of events is underway, drawing collaborators from a half-dozen police agencies with strong K9 programs.

We saw this in action the other day at the Denver airport. The lines were stretching nearly to Daly City. Suddenly, a Transportation Security Administration dog squad appeared in a blur of action. A fast-moving pointer whipped along the queue, its handler seemingly dragged along as an afterthought.

The dog was nothing if not thorough. He sized up some people two or three times, snout twitching, ears flopping, returning again and again for another whiff of something. We assumed it must have been the cannabis. The TSA guy insisted that wasn’t the point. Dogs are trained to sniff out only certain kinds of stuff and won’t cross jurisdictional lines.

“You see what this badge says,” the blue-uniformed guy pointed out, as the dog ran its paces. “Does this say DEA on here?”

It did not. As it turned out, the dog found nothing of more than fleeting interest, and we were all cleared for takeoff. In fact, as we moved to the X-ray machinery, the TSA crews waived us through. We had passed the smell test. My harmonicas were not mistaken for weapons of mass destruction, as has happened so many times before.

The goal of REDDI, the regional canine initiative, is “to share and gather knowledge,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. If that’s true, bomb-sniffing dogs could be considered a unique part of the Trump administration.

Some dogs specialize. There is a specific focus now on PBIED dogs — “Person Borne Improvised Explosive Device detection canine.” Those are the weapons of choice for a certain type of nutjob, or mass murderer, in a crowd.

Despite everything we expected from nanotechnology, drones, and X-ray specs, the DHS says a well-trained and properly handled dog is still the strongest defense we have when it comes to keeping us safe in a mob of ourselves. They also have strong deterrent value. Who wants to argue with a German shepherd that’s concluded something in my bag smells worse than my socks?

“The explosives detection canine is the best, most versatile mobile explosive detection tool available for protecting the homeland from the explosive threat,” the agency said of its PBIED-screening options.

Dogs, in other words, have snouts like nobody’s business. We’re talking about 250 million olfactory receptors open for business, spread around an active doggy nose-zone 50 times bigger than the puny proboscis of a person. A dog can be trained to smell a cell phone smuggled into prison. A dog can detect up to 19,000 chemical combinations used in explosives.

That’s according to the ATF, which stands for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. All three of those things can be smelled by dogs, which can then be further trained to do something once they smell the thing. Sometimes, all they have to do is sit down next to whatever it is. And they don’t really get that the thing may be a bomb about to explode. Dogs don’t ask questions.

If they did, they’d ask about the “K9” thing, among other weird notions propagated by handlers. The ATF, for instance, is famous in the bomb-sniffing dog world for pioneering the “National Odor Recognition Testing Standard,” known, of course, as “NORT.” You have to know more could be done with that one.

The latest effort, begun in Washington, D.C., includes experiments measuring dogs’ ability to find what they are supposed to find, given different amounts of chemical bomb-making ingredients, and different ways of carrying and concealing the stuff in real-world crowd scenarios.

There’s another program for off-leash hazard detection, known as Search Enhanced Evidence Canine, or SEEK. So what if there’s a little flexibility on the spelling. SEEK will help us “ESL,” which of course stands for “enhance the security layer.” It certainly needs enhancing. As only a few brave, overworked dogs may truly know, the world stinks, everywhere we go.

Carl T. Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, is a longtime science reporter who is allergic to cats. He lives in the Bayview neighborhood where he and some business partners will soon be opening a dog-friendly cafe, Word.

Main article photo by: humonia-istock