Man's New Best Friend

In the wake of September 11, security dogs have become must-have items. Prices have skyrocketed. There aren't enough German shepherds.

After the terrorist attacks, Bush Intercontinental, Hobby Airport and Ellington Field were evacuated, and the dogs combed through them terminal by terminal. They checked the towers and examined unclaimed luggage. An Arab-looking man abandoned a car at Intercontinental, so they searched it. Another "suspicious person" left two terroristic threat letters in the bathroom at Hobby Airport, so they combed the terminal. A 911 caller said that Continental flight number 434 would not make it to New York, so the plane was evacuated and the dogs searched all 115 pieces of luggage, 60 cases of cargo and the bulkhead.

The dogs and their handlers have been working 12-hour days and volunteering on weekends -- yet they still can't answer every call. "Most of your bomb threats are a hoax anyway," says HPD dog handler Charlie Vaughn. "But we shouldn't turn down any calls."

The dogs are stationed five minutes away from Intercontinental. As part of the TSA's expansion effort, HPD hired three more handlers to permanently patrol Hobby Airport.

On September 12, Master Sergeant John Pearce doubled the number of dogs in training.
Deron Neblett
On September 12, Master Sergeant John Pearce doubled the number of dogs in training.
HPD Sergeant Rex Robertson says many trainers now look overseas for German shepherds.
Deron Neblett
HPD Sergeant Rex Robertson says many trainers now look overseas for German shepherds.

"Major events caused the program to be created," Robertson says. "Now another major event is causing the expansion."

All U.S. military dogs are trained at the 700-acre Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio. The day after the terrorist attacks, officials at Lackland doubled the bomb-detecting dog class size, extended the training day to nine hours and started working dogs six days a week. At the FAA's request, instructors expedited training and graduated the class in session three weeks early. That was the last scheduled course of the year, but FAA officials asked Master Sergeant John Pearce to certify another group of bomb dogs before Christmas.

Trexler told The Washington Post the FAA was so desperate for dogs, they would accept any breed -- even a pink poodle.

The one they bought was black.

A standard poodle named Danny passed the monthlong pretraining program, where he was taught to identify several different explosive odors. Exactly which explosives and how many is classified information, Pearce says.

In beige barracks located at the back of the base, trainers drilled Danny on each explosive; they let him smell baggies of powder wrapped in a brown paper towel, then hid the powder in desk drawers, nightstands, cabinets and couches.

"It's a shell game," Pearce says. "We keep moving it back and forth."

Once the poodle found an explosive 15 times in a row, he moved on to the next scent. Danny was trained to sit when he smelled an explosive, because if he barked or pawed at a bomb, it could detonate. After learning all the odors, the poodle practiced in a simulated parking lot filled with junked cars and on six permanently parked airplanes.

Inside the first Boeing 707's cabin, the orange upholstery is ripped, yellow foam spills out of the seat cushions, and the carpet is covered in dog hair. Here, the poodle was taught to methodically sniff seats in each aisle, air vents and overhead bins.

But a week into the 55-day dog-and-handler training, instructors reported that the poodle wasn't a stellar student.

"He was inconsistent," says trainer Rusty Smith. "He didn't work."

Unlike other dogs, Danny didn't get excited about sniffing through boxes of Burlington blankets, sheets and towels at the nearby warehouse. Danny would find eight explosives, then he would be tired and want to quit. On long searches, the poodle panted heavily, which made his nose less sensitive. Playing a game of fetch wasn't enough of a prize to keep Danny motivated to continue working. "He doesn't want it bad enough," Pearce says. Since they had already paid for him, trainers tried different techniques -- but soon they gave up.

Sixteen days into the program, Danny was dishonorably discharged. He's being put up for public adoption. Although they haven't ruled out the breed because of one unmotivated standard-bearer, poodles aren't on the current shopping list.

"Thank God," Smith says.

Over the years, the military has experimented with everything from Dobermans to dalmatians. After World War II, Army officials decided that German shepherds and Belgian Malinois (known as "super shepherds") were the breeds of choice because of their high endurance, energy and versatility. Most dogs training at Lackland are shepherds and Malinois, but the TSA also trains various sporting breeds such as springer spaniels, Labradors and golden retrievers. These dogs are innate hunters and mellow enough to hang out at busy airports.

The now discharged poodle was bought at Christmastime on the TSA's last shopping trip to Germany. Trying to produce pretty, show-quality dogs, American breeders bred hip problems and dysplasia into German shepherds. "The puppy mills inbred champions," Robertson says. So many trainers shop overseas where dogs are bred to work, not win Westminster.

Along with the poodle, the TSA purchased a pup named Arras. Pearce calls him a German hunting hound, which sounds far more ferocious than a tiny little terrier. Arras is barely bigger than Eddie on Frasier; he looks like a Yorkie with curly black hair and splashes of caramel.

"He's one of the first small breeds that we've actually messed with," Pearce says.

At seven-thirty on a late February morning, Arras has already been fed and is sitting inside a pet carrier outside the barracks. It's 35 degrees, and the San Antonio winds are so strong that big rigs are being blown on around the road. About 500 dogs are at the base today, training for the Department of Defense and the TSA. It sounds like an enormous animal pound.

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