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.

Inside his kennel, the terrier looks restless; he spins, flops down, then immediately stands up and paws at the grate. When a handler puts him on a leash, he runs in circles and jumps in the air, rushing to get inside.

He's a hyper little dog -- but bomb dogs have to be eager and energetic, trainers say. They work fast because the building might explode. A drug dog can spend 30 minutes thoroughly sniffing a dozen boxes, trainer Howard explains, but a bomb dog has to be able to search an entire warehouse in half an hour. "We have to get in and get out," he says.

Inside the training barracks, the floor and walls are scratched from hundreds of paws. Dogs are straining at their leashes, panting like obscene phone callers.

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.
Runt of the litter: Arras is the smallest dog in training.
Deron Neblett
Runt of the litter: Arras is the smallest dog in training.

"Go seek," the handler orders the terrier as he enters a room filled with college commons-room furniture. Starting in the left corner, the dog sniffs shelves built into the wall. The handler pats the heavy wood desk, and the terrier stands on his hind legs and sniffs each drawer. On the way out of the room, the handler taps a red '70s-style hard suitcase. "Check that a little better," the handler says.

The dog scampers down the hall to the next room, makes a quick clockwise circle and darts out. Across the hall he sniffs each corner. When he nears the desk, he suddenly slows down. "He smells something," Pearce says. The dog's trying to figure out exactly where the odor is coming from. "He's working the scent," Pearce says. "See the change in behavior." The dog sits by the desk. The explosive is hidden in the drawer.

As a reward, the handler produces a bright orange ball. The dog bites into it before the handler lets go. Still holding the ball, the handler picks up the terrier by his teeth and swings him into the air.

Houston police officers won't be working with the hunting hound. They refuse. Officers at HPD prefer big burly dogs -- they told FAA officials that they want to work only with German shepherds and Belgian Malinois. "They're more workmanlike," Robertson says.

Even if the dog is meek and mild and failed out of attack school -- like HPD officer Tommy Kemp's Malinois -- a bigger dog still looks like it can tear someone's arm off. Having a dangerous-looking dog on the leash can be a crime deterrent, officers say. They don't want to walk around with a wimpy little lapdog.

"There's a macho thing that goes with this," Robertson says. "Would you want to throw a poodle in the back of a police car? It's an image thing -- as opposed to whether the dog can do the work."

There are also logistical problems searching with a small dog, officers say. The bigger the dog is, the more levels he can search. When an airplane is searched, dogs stand on the seats and stretch up to sniff out the overhead bins. A small dog would have to be picked up or placed in the bin.

HPD dog handler Carlos Perez remembers laughing at the officer training at Lackland who carried his beagle around the base. Between dogs, Perez spent six months working with a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Spray. But he happily traded her in for a German shepherd. The difference between the dogs, he says, is "like from here to the moon."

His shepherd walks into a building and immediately wants to work. The retriever, he says, wanted to say hello to strangers, play and get petted before getting down to business. German shepherds, officers say, have a more serious, German work ethic. And because of its innate drive, a shepherd doesn't need the officer to hold his hand and tell him exactly where to look and what to do.

Drilling one afternoon in Intercontinental's Terminal B, big dogs run ahead of their handlers. They seem to be working on autopilot as they sniff the arrival and departure boards and race along the conveyer belts in baggage claim. Every now and then a handler gives some guidance, but it's very minimal.

"A good working German shepherd doesn't care what a handler is doing," says Ron Allen, chief operating officer of BJR Security. "You can drop the leash or wait in the car -- it doesn't care -- they won't be distracted."

When the terrier or the Border collie works, it constantly looks at the handler, who has to tap each item to make sure the dog checks it. And if the handler moves forward, the dog can easily be pulled off the scent.

"The smaller, more hyper dogs are more responsive to the movements of the person who's handling the leash," Allen says. "If the handler is new or unsure, then jerky motions or actions are going to distract the dog and the dog isn't going to work."

Aside from extra guidance, little dogs need more affection and coddling, Kemp says. "Labs, collies and spaniels are too people-oriented -- they distract too easily. He has to be able to take obedience training without getting his feelings hurt. The little dogs, they pout if you correct them, like a little child. The shepherds, they have a harder core."

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