By Aaron Reiss
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The German shepherd's hair bristled. Sniffing the air, his nose twitched and his black body stiffened. From his ears to his tail, the dog froze, silently alerting the platoon to the approaching enemy. Armed with a superhuman sense of smell, the dog sensed strangers 1,000 yards away. Any chance of being ambushed was destroyed.
Trained to detect soldiers the way golden retrievers are taught to ferret out pheasants, the German shepherd, Chips, spotted enemies hiding in a tree, crouching in a ditch, or lying in a field. He picked out trip wires, booby traps and metallic mines just as easily.
Chips, who could climb muddy, snow-covered mountains, traveling where horses and cars couldn't, who could run across open beaches with ammunition strapped to his body and not get shot because he was a small fast-moving target -- that's what most people think of when the phrase "war dog" is introduced.
The normally well behaved beast broke away from his handler one day and attacked a camouflaged enemy machine-gun crew. The dog flung its 60-pound body onto a soldier, tackled him and sunk its sharp teeth into the enemy's flesh. The dog refused to release him until the entire battalion surrendered.
This dog was awarded both the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. Again, when people think of military dogs, they usually think of Chips: one of 10,000 dogs that served in World War II.
More than half a century later, in the wake of September 11, the stock in dogs like Chips has skyrocketed. German shepherds that once cost $2,000 now sell for close to $20,000.
The Los Angeles Timesdeclared bomb-detecting dogs a must-have item. Congress doubled the Federal Aviation Administration's budget in order to train more dogs to patrol the nation's busiest airports.
All FAA dogs are trained in Texas, and several national security-dog companies are based here, too. Right now, they're all searching for German shepherds. But because of the surge in demand, breeders throughout the United States and Europe are selling out of quality shepherds. Even small-town dog pounds have been picked over.
"Everybody wants dogs," says Paul Howard, a dog trainer who went on the FAA's last buying trip to Europe. "We're gonna deplete the market."
Dogs like Chips are rarer than talking monkeys. So dogs like Max have been recruited.
Max is a two-year-old Border collie with amber eyes, a black face and shaggy white fur. His thick coat looks like a bearskin rug. Six inches shorter than the average German shepherd, he's a cuddly, bouncy dog who sits still for only half-second intervals. He looks like he should be helping a cowboy wrangle cattle instead of hunting bombs.
Max is trained to detect 15 different types of explosive odors, from dynamite to TNT. And his owners at the Gainesville, Texas-based BJR Security say he's the best bomb dog on the squad.
But Houston police officers say they wouldn't want him in the back of their patrol car.
Thirty years ago this month, Trans World Airlines officials received an anonymous phone call that a plane traveling from New York to Los Angeles had a bomb on board. The jet returned to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and an explosives-detecting dog named Brandy was summoned. The German shepherd found two bombs in the bathroom wall 12 minutes before they were set to explode.
That day, March 9, 1972, President Richard Nixon called for increased airport security. As a result, the FAA placed bomb-detecting dogs in Houston, Los Angeles and Cleveland. The three airports were chosen so American flights could quickly divert to an airport with a bomb-dog squad, says FAA spokesperson Rebecca Trexler.
Houston was selected because it had already been targeted by terrorists, says Sergeant Rex Robertson, head of the HPD bomb-dog squad. Earlier that year, he says, an Eastern Airlines ticket agent was killed at Houston Intercontinental Airport by a man hijacking a flight to Cuba.
Over the years, whenever planes mysteriously went down, or exploded, the program was expanded. By the mid-1990s, dog teams were stationed within 30 minutes of the nation's largest airports. Last year, 175 dogs worked at 39 airports.
After the twin towers collapsed, Congress allocated $6 million in emergency funds to expand the FAA's airport canine corps. With its budget doubled, the FAA added 15 dogs to check abandoned bags, rental cars and suspicious-looking people. The Transportation Security Administration has taken charge of the FAA canine corps, and by the end of next year, the administration wants to have 300 bomb-sniffing dogs stationed at the nation's 80 busiest airports.
"We'd always planned to grow the program slowly," says Trexler. "But since the attack, we're trying to ramp up pretty quickly."
Before September 11, the six-dog HPD canine squad did school demonstrations, told kids to stay away from explosives and strolled through the airports. The most exciting event on the dog's logbook last summer was a visit from the president of Indonesia. The Secret Service had the dogs check the president's motorcade, the ballroom at the Doubletree Hotel and the first floor of City Hall.