December 8, 2005

Elite Graduates of U.S. Dog School Sniff Drugs, Money

By Bernd Debusmann

FRONT ROYAL, Virginia -- The last class of 2005 has completed the core curriculum and picked its majors -- sniffing for drugs, dollars, people, explosives, chemicals or agricultural produce.

Final exams start soon and graduation is scheduled for December 22 after 13 weeks of rigorous training at one of the world's most elite schools for government dogs. The 20 canine students who pass will start crime-fighting careers at U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, and air and seaports around the country.

The graduates, including Labradors, German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, will join a border protection force of around 1,200 dogs that last year accounted for an average of 31 narcotics seizures a day and sniffed out $33 million in hidden cash.

"There's no technology that can match a dog's smell, there's no machine that comes even close to the speed, accuracy and flexibility of a dog," said Lee Titus, director of the Canine Enforcement Training Center at Front Royal.

The center is the biggest of the three dog schools run by Customs and Border Protection, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

While drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs are a familiar part of law enforcement, canines specialized in detecting dollars have labored in relative obscurity. But they play a key role in efforts to stop the flow of drug profits from the United States to Latin America.

Currency smuggling, officials say, is becoming more serious as financial regulators around the world tighten controls on bank accounts and wire transfers.

"The dogs are trained to detect dollars, no other currency," said instructor Sue Hunsaker, "and they are trained to find bulk, quantities of more than 500 bills. We don't want them to bother regular travelers."

A compound of white-washed, red-roofed houses in the rolling hills of northern Virginia, the center has facilities which replicate real-life conditions, including two airport luggage conveyor belts carrying an assortment of suitcases, some with hidden compartments for drugs or explosives.


There are long rows of cars, pick-ups and vans at two parking lots. At one, dogs are trained to find marijuana, hashish, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy pills concealed in a vehicle's most hidden nooks and crannies. "We hide, they seek," explained Hunsaker.

At the second lot, the hide-and-seek focuses on finding concealed people.

At the end of their training course, dogs know when to alert their handlers actively or passively to contraband, depending on the work environment.

At airport luggage belts, cargo areas or mailrooms, dogs scratch or bite the container or luggage suspected of holding forbidden goods. Dogs working among crowds will quietly sit down next to a suspect person or package.

According to Customs and Border Protection statistics, dogs last year sniffed out more than 1.8 million pounds (816,460 kg) of narcotics, 40,296 people concealed inside vehicles and containers and 6,552 pounds (2,970 kg) of animal and plant products whose importation is prohibited.

There are no statistics on the discovery of chemicals, and officials decline to give details of training on that aspect beyond saying the dogs can detect the signature odor of chemicals associated with weapons of mass destruction.

A key part of the course here is matching dogs to their future handlers. During the training, each human is working with two dogs. Once the team is formed, it often stays together for the working life of the dog -- retirement age is 8 but not compulsory -- and forge close bonds.

Titus has large portraits of two of his canine former teammates, Angel and Cowboy, hanging on the wall of his office. And he speaks with admiration bordering on awe of a third, Kirby, whose portrait and career details adorn a card made to resemble a baseball trading card.

In his working life, the late Kirby was responsible for the seizure of $167 million worth of drugs, Titus said. "Canine teams are powerful combinations. Common sense at one end of the leash and an amazing sense of smell at the other end."

(Dogs are believed to be able to smell odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans).

Kirby worked before the establishment of an annual contest,

Paws to Recognize, to find the most successful Customs and Border sniffer dog.

This year's winner, Jacko, a Belgian Malinois working on the border with Texas, beat out 1,200 nominees to have a medal draped around his neck and his paw print cemented in the canine equivalent of Hollywood's walk of fame.

No such pomp and circumstance for Jacko's teammate, Border Patrol agent Clay Thomas. His reward: having his picture taken with Jacko at the prize-giving ceremony.