Man's New Best Friend
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 Times declared 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.
"He's like that pro kicker Gramatica," says Max's former handler, Darren Beaudin, referring to the record-setting Tampa Bay Buccaneer. "He's a sure thing."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
Airport bomb dogs are trained to be gentle enough to be around crowds. But since German shepherds have a big bad wolf quality, most kids shy away. Working with a little dog would be a hassle, Robertson says.
"People want to pet the cute little doggies," Robertson says. "Everybody would want to pet Lassie. When you're working a threat, you don't have time to stop and let everybody pet your dog."
In early February, Max worked five school bomb threats in one day. Contracted by the Fort Worth Independent School District, the dog regularly searches lockers, lavatories and student backpacks.
Max spends his days riding in the back of a dark green van; a stuffed Scooby-Doo sits in the cup holder, and plastic Dr Pepper bottles litter the floor. The van hits six to eight schools every day; Max waits in the car while a blond Lab and a Chesapeake Bay retriever search parking lots for drugs and weapons.
In the travel kennel, Max lies with his face on his paws; he has a please-please-let-me-out look. When he barks and scratches the cage door, his handler drapes a black jacket over the kennel. He sniffs loudly, and the cage shakes.
"He's just bored," says BJR's marketing and development director, Carl Rickert Jr. "That's why he barks. He's in that cage all day long, and he gets sick and tired of it. But you can't let a dog out and let him run, because if someone ran over him, you're losing $12,000 to $18,000 worth of dog."
The only time Max works is when there's a bomb threat. Or when the school district worries that there might be one. Max searches stadiums before track meets, football and basketball games, secures proms and is going to hit all 12 FWISD high school graduations.
In four months with the company, Max has done so well that BJR Security bought three more collies.
"It's too early to tell whether they'll be a staple breed," Allen says. "But right now they offer potential. We see no shortcomings."
Max is on call for two hours after school. His trainer takes him to the park and lets him play. On a sunny Friday afternoon Max is fetching a Frisbee outside the Middle Level Learning Center, an alternative education school in Fort Worth. His herding instinct emerges when he drops the foam Frisbee at the handler's feet, then crouches like he's guarding it and making sure it doesn't move. After he plays, it's time to train.
As soon as he walks into the building, Max strains at his leash. He rears on his hind legs, his back paws slipping and sliding on the linoleum. In a first-floor classroom, he sniffs a teacher's heavy brown desk, file cabinets and the overhead projector. "Find it, Max," his handler commands. She taps on the bookshelves every three inches, guiding Max's search. In the corner by the door, he slows down.
"Where is it, Max?" she asks. "Where is it? Is it there?"
He sits in front of the cabinet where the black powder is hidden. "Good boy," she says and throws him his blue ball.
They play tug-of-war, then she takes him outside, gives him a drink of water and loads him into the kennel. He tries to escape and head back into the school.
"The little guy will just keep going," Rickert says. "He's as good as a shepherd."
Maybe even better.
But the cops still don't want him.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.