Can a working dog save us from terrorist attacks?

An explosive detection dog with a member of the British Royal Engineers (France, 1944). Such dogs were used during World War II to find German "Shoe Mines", made from wood and otherwise difficult to detect. [Wikipedia]

An explosive detection dog with a member of the British Royal Engineers (France, 1944). Such dogs were used during World War II to find German “Shoe Mines”, made from wood and otherwise difficult to detect. [Wikipedia]

A service dog is always a working dog but, legally in the US, a working dog is not always a service dog. The term, “working dog,” generally refers to those trained in a specific task to either safeguard or help their human partner. Thus, the term includes dogs whose work ranges from guarding sheep, to police K-9’s bomb sniffing dogs, dogs trained to detect illegal agricultural imports, and so on.
Because of this close alliance between the service dog and working dog, I feel justified in posting something about the working dog relevant to a very particular time and place. Yet, I hesitated to do this post because it has such serious personal meaning for me. Thinking about what happened in Orlando, those lost souls and the agony of their families, reminded me of the horrific bombing in Brussels, Belgium which occurred this past March. From the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, I lived in Brussels. Those years are among my fondest memories in life.

There too I became acquainted with what is generally called the Belgian shepherd but is, in fact, four rather distinct types of dogs with their own, specific characteristics: the Belgian Groenendael, Belgian Malinois, Belgian Tervuren, and the less well-known Belgian Laekenois. In all the years I lived in Brussels, crime was so minimal that when a woman was mugged, it was the headline in the newspaper and the story was followed for weeks!  How different now is our world.

Following the bombing in Belgium, the Brussels police immediately began to use their only working dog trained to sniff out explosives and, most important, the “heat plume” that emanates from someone who has been working with explosives.  We already have sophisticated “bomb dogs,” but this singular dog had to undergo highly specialized training to ensure he (or she?) could detect some of newer and less detectable explosive elements AND follow anyone who may have worked with them. Some agencies refer to them as “anti-terrorist” dogs; trainers use the term “Vapor Wake Detection” dogs.

We know already that the sensitivity of a dog’s nose far exceeds our own. But what many people may not know is that this sensitivity also has an accuracy rate that doesn’t just rival its technological counterpart, but exceeds it.  So, for example, several years ago when high-end Manhattan hotels were suddenly infested with bed bugs, the beagles trained to smell and alert on the bugs were 98% accurate as compared to–at that time–the most sophisticated monitor which was reliable only about 50% of the time.

The first question that comes to mind is this: With the unfailing accuracy of dogs who can detect explosives so acutely that they can even follow the heat plume from someone (compared to bomb dogs which alert on a stationary object) why isn’t Belgium or indeed every country in western Europe as well as the United States using such fine animals in abundance? Truly, until further advances in technology, a dog might be the only things that stands between us and the horror of an explosion set off by terrorists.

The answer is–and isn’t it always nowadays–cost.  Brussels, that marvelous international city, only had enough money to purchase one of these dogs.  (Each dog capable of following the vapor from explosives, costs about $50,000. Furthermore, each dog has to be continually retrained as new types of explosives, such as TATP, become part of the chemistry of this diabolical activity.) New York City, more financially solvent, still has only 20 or 30 vapor-wake detection dogs. That may seem like a lot of dogs.  It’s not. Given all the places a terrorist could place explosives, it’s a drop in the bucket.

Bomb dog detecting chem on pants leg How important is one of these dogs compared, for example, to a bomb dog?  During the Boston marathon a few years ago, the area was carefully inspected by bomb dogs before the race began. One of these dogs might very well have detected the bomb placed in a garbage can, if it were done before the race. But, the terrorists came in later, mingling with the audience of onlookers.  That’s the kind of scent one of these anti-terrorist dogs are trained to detect: explosives on people moving through a crowd. Had one or more of these dogs been there during the marathon, there is a real possibility the bombing might never have happened. A sad reality, yes?

I went back to Brussels for a very brief visit a couple years ago.  I had not been there since the mid-70s.  Like all places one knows, we are always surprised it has changed through the years. It almost feels like a betrayal.  How could it have moved on when it is ensconced so vividly in our memories?

The wonderful prose by Andrei Klimentov, (pen name: Andrei Platonov), eloquently captures this feeling:

From the experience of his childhood, he knew that it was strange and sad
to return to a place you had once known very well.  Your heart was still tied to the spot,
yet everything there had forgotten you, couldn’t remember you,
had been leading its own active and varied existence without you,
and you suddenly realize that you had been alone with your feelings all that time
and now you stand there a stranger, unrecognized. [Soviet Life, c. 1950s]

For me, the initial question that is the header for this post: “Can a working dog save us from terrorist attacks?” is an unqualified yes.  Undoubtedly, and under pressure to find the necessary financial resources, more of these anti-terrorist dogs will be trained.  But will it be soon enough?

Vapor Wake Detection Dog

The recent murders in Orlando, is a terrible reminder of how dangerous the world  has become. Yet, from this massacre, a great wave of love and compassion has poured out of our country. Included in this response, have been the wonderful teams of therapy dog partners who came to give comfort to the victims and their families. To read about this, click on the following link:







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4 Responses to Can a working dog save us from terrorist attacks?

  1. Norman W Wilson, PhD June 22, 2016 at 11:52 am #

    As always, it’s the cost. BUT we have the money to build multi-million dollar football stadiums for high school kids to play in, massive sports arenas in our major cities for the modern day Romans to watch their gladiators. The real question, doc, is what are our priorities. Good article, lots of good information. Thanks.

  2. gloria June 22, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    Great article, I had no idea dogs doing this kind of service. Absolutely, should incorporate these dogs in events, etc………….but sadly, will it ever be done?

  3. Ann June 24, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    Really enjoyed the article. I have seen these dogs on Amtrak and in airports.

  4. Kathleen Kaska June 27, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this, Patricia. When you think about it, the cost of training these dogs is minimal compared to the lives they could save and property damage they could prevent.

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