In an era of high tech tools to fight terrorism, no machine has been able to surpass or even equal the sophisticated and versatile abilities of dogs to detect explosives.
Shawn Crawford is the Supervisor at the Canine Training Center at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives, or ATF, the U.S. Department of Justice's lead agency for training explosives-detecting canines.
"The explosive is inside this can… they work anywhere from a gram to a couple hundred pounds. And this particular exercise is probably about 50 grams"
Mr. Crawford says dogs can be trained to recognize six basic ingredients of explosives, which gives them the ability to find 19,000 different types of explosive compounds. The dogs, mostly Labrador retrievers chosen for their curiosity and mobility, are trained to stop and sit down when they sniff an explosive. In exchange they get a treat.
"We never had a dog out working in a field, where we had to evacuate a building because a dog made an incorrect assessment. They are very reliable."
Since the Canine Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia opened in 1990, 474 teams from the United States and 19 other countries have been trained. Hannel Al Shamani is from Qatar. He and his dog Paula are a perfect working team.
"We pre-train the dog first here for six weeks, then when the handler comes in they are married up with the canine for a 10-week course," said Mr. Crawford.
And the marriage of trainer and dog is for life. Their lives depend on each other's trust and training.
"It's a dangerous job that they do but we never had a handler or a dog injured out in deployment. We teach safe practices here, we educate the handler not to put themselves into a harmful situation."
For years, scientists around the country have tried to find a better way of detecting explosives. But there are only a few systems and they are big, heavy and expensive. In reality, nothing can compete with the efficiency and versatility of this great big nose on four paws.