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Bomb-sniffing dogs are in short supply across the U.S.

University of Pennsylvania Police Officer and K9 Uman, a black Labrador Retriever trained in explosives detection, conducting a package search during a routine training exercise.
Wise K9 Photography
University of Pennsylvania Police Officer and K9 Uman, a black Labrador Retriever trained in explosives detection, conducting a package search during a routine training exercise.

Updated November 29, 2022 at 1:41 PM ET

It's no secret that dogs are good at smelling and finding things — food of course, but some are able to track a person's scent or sniff out illegal drugs like heroin, and some are even good at smelling danger. Like bombs.

For decades, dogs have been used by various departments — police, Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration — to sniff out potential bomb threats. They sweep stadiums and airports to make sure they're safe for people. It's dangerous and heroic work that saves lives.

But there's a shortage of these bomb-sniffing canines in the U.S. — something Cindy Otto, the executive director of the PennVet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has been calling attention to for years. Here's what she said when testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee in 2016.

"One of the major reasons for the shortage of quality dogs is that we rely heavily on procurement of dogs from other countries. By outsourcing our national security requirements, we give up control of the type of dogs, the health of the dogs, and the early training of the dogs. We also are at risk for supply interruption due to politics, disaster, or disease."

Otto was certainly prescient six-plus years ago, as those predictions have become reality, with the U.S. importing about 80% to 90% of its working dogs from Europe. With the pandemic and supply chain issues across the globe, the problem has gotten worse.

We spoke with Otto for her view of things today.

"Certainly COVID interrupted everything. As more and more countries are realizing the benefits of having these explosive detection dogs, there is a greater demand. And there's only a limited number of dogs that could be sustained in the programs that are there."

The solution, Otto says, is to breed the dogs in the U.S., and that's slowly starting to happen. She says the Department of Homeland Security has invested in different projects like The Auburn Dog program at Auburn University in Alabama that raises "The Auburn Dog."

Not all dogs are created equal, so what kind of dogs are best at sniffing out bombs and working out in the field?

"If we're looking at the TSA, they're really focusing more on the sporting breed, so that's Labradors and German shorthaired pointers. Because our explosive detection dogs are across the board, including in law enforcement agencies, we're looking predominantly at Labradors and German shorthaired pointers and to a lesser extent the shepherds."

I come from a pug-loving family so I asked Otto if these smushed faced little creatures are fit for this line of work. The short answer is, nope. But she offered this little story that made me smile.

Piggy the Pug impatiently waits for Kurt Gardinier to give her a treat.
Tevhid Basturk / Kurt Gardinier
/
Kurt Gardinier
Piggy the pug impatiently waits for Kurt Gardinier to give her a treat.

"I have to go to my friend Nathan Hall, who did a great study comparing the ability of pugs to find a treat. It wasn't a bomb, but it was to find a treat in a hidden spot. And he compared German shepherds, pugs, and greyhounds, and it was the pug who came out on top."

Pugs may not be able to sniff out a bomb and serve their country, but they'll always find the treats!

According to the American Kennel Club, all potential detection dogs need early socialization and training to succeed. This includes being exposed to a variety of people, places and noises. If you want to get involved, Otto recommends contacting the American Kennel Club, The Auburn Dog program, or the PennVet Working Dog Center.

The audio for this story was produced by Kurt Gardinier and edited by Kaity Kline.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kurt Gardinier
Kurt Gardinier is a producer for Morning Edition and its podcast, Up First.