Working Like a Dog to Smell Bombs
Bomb sniffing dogs and their handlers may be amongst the hardest working in Boston this week. But, unlike the humans working long hours to provide safety for Boston residents, the 4-leggeds appear to be in a game of play. According to the Boston Globe, 11 bomb-sniffing dogs were at the Boston Marathon. Since the tragic bombings during the Boston Marathon, dozens of extra bomb detection dogs have been brought in from other states, including Rhode Island.
At the Bruins game Wednesday night, bomb-sniffing fans were part of heightened security measures, along with state and local police and the Massachusetts National Guard. Once inside, fans were greeted by security that included those that come with fur.
Major airports across the country have brought in extra security, including an increased number of bomb detection dogs. Their pay… toys, treats, and satisfaction of a job well done when their nose leads them to an explosive device.
How do dogs learn to smell and recognize bombs? According to Slate.com, using classical conditioning techniques with food rewards and toys. It’s not surprising that positive reinforcement training is a big part of the success of working with bomb detection dogs. The Labrador Retriever is a favored breed due to its focused, calm demeanor in high-intensity situations along with its huge desire to work.
The following is a detailed excerpt from Slate’s very descriptive article on bomb detecting dogs:
“During the 10-week program, a dog is exposed to an explosive up to 120 times a day, in amounts ranging from 1,000 pounds to 1 gram. In early phases of training, the dog is told to sit each time he finds the odor that becomes the signal he uses to alert his handler when a bomb is present. The dog is fed only when in the presence of the explosive. Using a food reward instead of praise and play prevents an exclusive bond between dog and handler, which might prevent the dog from working well with others.
One upper-level training scenario uses a rotating wheel with slots for four containers. Some of the containers are empty; others hold explosives, a distracting object such as food, or an explosive combined with a distracting odor. By using the training wheel, the dog learns to ignore food in favor of explosives. Some agencies avoid mixing food with work and infuse dog toys with explosive odors instead. The dogs learn to root out hidden explosives by simply playing fetch.
The dog must learn to recognize thousands of active ingredients that might be used in an explosive. Trainers expose the canine to signature compounds that are found in many different types of explosives. In this way, a dog can be trained to detect all manner of bombs by memorizing a dozen or so smells. Some bomb components are more odoriferous than others. C-4 has an incredibly strong scent; it’s followed in decreasing order of smelliness by dynamite, TOVEX, detonating cord, and TNT.”
But, as stated this week in the Boston Globe, “Dogs are not infallible. With such a crowd, the dog can’t check every individual and package. The bomb was comprised of what is called a pressure cooker, which seals the top of the device. If there is gunpowder in a sealed unit which isn’t emitting any odors, it may be difficult for a dog to detect.”
At this writing, most of Boston is in lockdown, while the search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, continues. If there are any more explosives in the area, I hope the dogs, brought in to do their work, make a good game of play out of finding the bombs, while keeping the citizens and law enforcement officers safe. Good dogs!
Update: Tsarnaev was captured since publishing this post. Job well done, Boston Police!
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