In 1999, eight dogs–six females and two males–were obtained by the U.S. Department of Transportation from a bomb detection squad that was up and running in Australia. The plan was that the U.S. would also gear up for this type of transportation security.
Two years later the program was kicked into high gear when Americans endured the tragedy of 9-11. With the loss of almost 3,000 Americans in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks using airplanes, the government found new urgency in creating a network of dogs to serve as the National Explosives Detection Canine Team.
With the establishment of the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) on November 19, 2001, organizers knew that getting their own breeding program up and running would be of the utmost necessity in order to produce the number of dogs that would be needed.
Explosives Detection Vital Part of Program
Today the TSA Puppy Program (Canine Training Center) is based at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. As they have refined the breeding and training of the dogs, they have determined that there are a few types of dog that are particularly likely to graduate as team members.
In addition to German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, pure-bred Labradors tend to excel at the work. Breeders have also found that the Hungarian Vizsla is a good mix in the program. They have cross-bred the Labs and Vizslas for a breed they refer to as a “Vizslador.” On the TSA website, the fellow who heads the program is quoted as saying: “The combination gives us the nose of a Vizsla and the enthusiasm for play of a Labrador retriever.”
From the ages of 10 weeks to one year, puppies are placed with foster families in the San Antonio area for socialization. All costs associated with the puppy are covered by the program. For one week each month the puppies come back to the training center for evaluation and to acclimate them to their eventual surroundings.
Like a Game of Hide-and-Seek Using One’s Nose
When they return to the training center at one year of age, the puppies begin their training, learning to identify the various smells associated with different types of explosives. Over time, the dogs learn to identify a wide range of odors, including those that are hidden underneath other smells.
When the dog finds a smell that they find of interest, they are taught to sit. That gives the handler and/or team the signal that there is something to investigate.
Each time a puppy successfully locates a correct odor in training, the dog receives praise from the handler and a reward—either a dog toy, a ball, or a small treat.
Dogs Named for 9-11 Victims
Because 9-11 was the major impetus that got the program up and running, the decision was made that each of the pups would be named for one of the people killed in the tragedy of that day.
Other Helpful Dogs at Airports
Today people arriving at a busy airport may encounter therapy dogs that are being brought into airports to offer a calming presence for passengers, but these are separately trained and certified for that work. (See “The Latest in Therapy Dogs: Calming Passengers at Airports.“)
The dogs bred for bomb detection and for use in aviation security are specifically trained to keep the public safe from external threats.