When Dogs Get WINGS

Dear Davi,

How are dogs helping protect passengers traveling through an airport?

Callie the Coton de Tulear


In busy airports across the country, explosive detection dogs risk life and paw every day to protect the public. These dogs are trained to be the first line of defense against hazardous materials. Why? Because of our super-charged sense of smell.

Dogs see the world as a smorgasbord of smells. To understand our surroundings, we sniff everything.

Our keen sense of smell is somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than humans’ ability. Not only do we have more odor receptors than humans – 20 to 40 times more — but our brains are specialized for identifying scents. A dog’s area devoted to analyzing smells is actually 40 times larger than a human’s.  So when we sniff pizza, we smell each ingredient — a human smells just pizza.

The process of training an explosive detection dog is a simple association game: The dog identifies a target odor, the dog gets a reward. Easy-peasy. These odors become imprinted on the brain through repetition and are tested in the field after the pooch completes an intensive training program.

Dogs learn to detect suspicious odors by sniffing cans in a grid, all of which contain explosive ingredients. Our knack for finding explosives is unparalleled. Once the dog catches a whiff of the target scent, he’s taught to sit down and look toward the source. This alerts his handler that an explosive is present and stops him from scratching something that could blow sky-high.

Working breeds such as German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Labrador retrievers and Vizslas are the usual choices for bomb-sniffing. These breeds have superlative olfactory organs, stay calm in crowds and around strangers, and like to play. Playing is important, because dogs understand work as play. It’s a daily game of find-the-explosive!

A superb sniffer is certainly an advantage, but the best bomb dog is not the one with the best sense of smell. Confidence, work ethic and interest in rewards are far more important.

Local trainer Courtney Bentley agrees. “A good detection dog should have nerves of steel, stamina and the desire to complete the task.”

She put my schnoz to the test to see if I have what it takes to be a bomb-sniffer.

Skill No. 1: Hunt Drive
This is the most fun game of ‘hide-and-seek’ ever.  I must learn to use smell, not sight, to find the treat. After it’s thrown, I’m released and SWOOSH — I sniff, find the treat and repeat.

Skill No. 2: Environment Obstacles
This tested my ability to ignore distractions and keep my eyes and nose on the prize. I stepped over boxes, walked on metal rods, even popped bubble-wrap, and completed the task like a boss.

Skill No. 3: Odor Detection
I don’t always stick my snout in plastic pipes, but when I do, I learn new scents — and get a treat!

My results? Still pending.
Jacksonville Aviation Authority currently has five detection dogs: Witz, Leo, Benny and Gucci are German shepherds; Csubara is a German shorthaired pointer.

For training information, contact Bold City K9 Certified Professional Dog Training at boldcityk9.com.

Happy sniffing!

Davi the dachshund isn’t super-furry like Callie the Coton de Tulear, but he’s always wanted to pilot a plane without instruments.