Lawmakers honor bomb-sniffing dogs

Washington has been honoring law enforcement officers for National Police Week, but another hero got the spotlight on Thursday: bomb-sniffing dogs.

Canine teams and their handlers headed to Capitol Hill to perform demonstrations for members of the House Homeland Security Committee, where dogs showed off their ability to detect explosives, uncover narcotics and screen passengers.

Lawmakers praised the animals’ vital role in protecting national security, especially in light of last year’s attacks near the non-secure areas of airports in Brussels and Turkey.

In the wake of those attacks, Congress gave the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) extra money to deploy 50 more bomb-sniffing dog teams to help expedite the screening process at busy airports. A TSA official said those units are in the process of being trained.

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“With the highest threat environment since 9/11, our law enforcement personnel must have the tools they need to keep Americans safe,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) chairman of the Oversight and Management Efficiency subcommittee. “A dog’s sense of smell is vastly more sensitive and acute than a humans, and their detection abilities are unrivaled.” 

But some lawmakers raised concern that the Trump administration has proposed scaling back on TSA’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) program in the White House budget blueprint. 

VIPR teams sweep the non-secure areas of transit hubs, sometimes with bomb-sniffing dogs, and are designed to serve as a visible security presence around airports, train stations and ports.

“I’m concerned that the administration is proposing a cut to the TSA VIPR operation that specializes in detecting suspicious activities in airports,” said Rep. J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.). “I’m hoping your testimony will further address the importance of fully funding your program as opposed to funding a border wall.”

Six federal divisions currently use canine teams, including the TSA, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Coast Guard.

Officials said that dogs are often far more effective — and less expensive — than technology when it comes to scent detection. 

Earlier this month, a canine team was credited with uncovering a batch of illegal narcotics valued at $1.3 million. Dogs were also used in search and rescue missions during Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And the animals are regularly used to sniff out concealed humans, whether it’s a criminal, someone in the country illegally or someone in danger.

“It’s one of God’s most simplest designs,” said Damian Montes, director of the canine training program at CBP. “Technology has its purpose, but technology as well has its challenges. These canines have this innate ability to work for a toy. There’s nothing better than a canine” to detect scents.

Dogs go through a rigorous training and certification process at one of two facilities in Virginia or Texas.

The animals are trained to detect explosives, firearms, drugs, humans, cadavers, currency and agricultural products, while their handlers are trained to recognize behavioral changes in their animal’s behavior and to reward the canine with a treat or toy.

The dogs live with their handler, who is responsible for the majority of their expenses and care giving.

“They live with us and become part of our family,” said Jennifer Brown, a canine search specialist and veterinarian for Urban Search and Rescue.

There is also a special laboratory that conducts testing and research to develop odor profiles for scent training. Scientists are currently looking at whether dogs could detect fentanyl, a powerful new drug emerging in the nation’s opioid crisis.

Perry said bomb-sniffing dogs have become increasingly important as terrorists seek to exploit security vulnerabilities.

The Trump administration is currently weighing whether to ban laptops on certain U.S.-bound flights over concern that terrorists are pursuing innovative methods to smuggle bombs onto commercial flights.

“The aviation system remains a large target, and as terrorists’ capabilities become more sophisticated with the ability to circumvent our technology systems, a canine’s nose might be our last line of defense,” Perry said.

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