The Evolution of an Explosives Detector Dog Team

The Evolution of an Explosives Detector Dog Team

By Matt Skogen (September 16th, 2019)

Taking a completely untrained dog and a handler through all of the various discipline specific tasks and producing a reliable explosives detection team, is no small accomplishment.  Everything from the selection of the canine, the imprinting process, the graduating phases, and knowing how to troubleshoot problems are all but just the beginning in training a quality explosives detector dog team.

The training of an explosives detection canine is one of the most important tasks of any trainer and handler.  Nobody can argue the need for a bomb dog to be highly proficient and correct in almost every instance.  The repercussions of a bomb dog having an “off” day are significant. Unlike most other disciplines where missing the target odor does not have too much of an impact on daily life, the explosives detection canine team cannot fail in detecting the presence of an explosives substance that may eventually result in a catastrophic, historical event.  I hate to think of the result had a canine team failed to show alert behaviors if given the opportunity to deploy and sniff the infamous Ryder truck involved in the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building which was destroyed in 1995.  As with anything else, there are variables and circumstances that go a long way to minimize the risk and explain why a canine did not alert, but for the most part a quality explosives detection handler does not want to spend any amount of time making excuses or having to explain why they failed at anything.  There simply is no room for excuses. A quality explosives detector dog team must consist of an excellent canine and a good handler to ensure success.  Success will be measured by answering the following question:  “Is this a credible and reliable team?”  If the answer is no, then this is a team that should not be working in the capacity of explosives detection.  It is the wrong discipline for them.  The liability is too great and public safety is at stake.

The need to standardize the training of explosives detector dog teams is great.  Nobody can agree on any one standard, but the need must be addressed in terms of certification and the evaluation of these teams.  This need to evaluate is far reaching.  It begins with the selection of a trainer and training program that offers a comprehensive curriculum.  It also involves the need to evaluate the selection of the canine as well as the selection of the handler and supervisor.  These are vital components and represent the foundation for the entire program.  If any one of these pieces holding the foundation is weak, the program could be destined to failure.

There is a mention of supervisors who may be tasked to oversee a canine program.  These supervisors must realize the importance of their position and not take this responsibility lightly.  The vicarious liability that exists for these supervisors should provide ample motivation to ensure the program is functioning properly.  This is measured by the evaluation of each and every canine team’s proficiency and maintenance of the assigned canine as well as paperwork such as training records, certifications, veterinary records, updated resume, etc.  The supervisor must ensure the canine team is being utilized effectively and make sure all supporting personnel are knowledgeable of the capabilities of the canine unit and maintain a good rapport in regard to morale and the general perception of the canine program.

Although there are various recommendations for the standardization of explosives canine teams, the “players” involved cannot agree on any one specific standard.  The standard involves many large entities and it appears there is a reluctance to sanction any one entity in favor of another.  There is definitely some politics at work and everybody believes their program is better than everybody else’s.  Hopefully there will come a day when this will be clarified and agreed upon, but until then it is important that every canine program identify specific standards and adhere to them.

Every canine program should have a quality set of operating procedures to include their own training and certification standards.  It is advantageous for any good canine program to conduct an in-house certification in addition to a third party certification where the trainer, supervisor, or anybody else interested can evaluate the canine team’s level of proficiency in all disciplines utilized by that agency.  This will instill confidence in the command staff and keep them wisely informed of any strengths and weaknesses of each individual canine and handler.  There are far too many canine programs consisting of too much handler dependence and a complete disconnect occurs from what is purported by the handler, and what is actually happening.  Typically, when this occurs the handler “bluffs” their way through their entire career and never is forced to put their money where their mouth is.  This is the essence of vicarious liability and it must be avoided at all costs.  Just because the handler says everything is great does not necessarily mean that all is well.  There must be checks and balances and the need to evaluate on a regular basis.

We have mentioned the importance of an in-house certification merely as an internal oversight practice, but the most important certification any canine team can attain is one which is granted by a third party having no stake in the success of the team.  In other words, this third party tasked with the certification of the canine teams had no interest in the selection of the dog, the training of the teams, and there is no financial implication whether the team successfully passes the certification testing or not.  This third party should be well versed in the training of dogs and understand the characteristics of scent.  The signature on the certification itself is only as credible as the person who places it upon it.  In most instances the preference for this type of certification is to utilize the talents found within a nationally recognized, court recognized, association having well written bylaws and certification standards.  The bylaws should be mired in integrity and the general practices of the governing body should do the same.

The persons tasked with the certification of canine teams must realize the profound responsibility placed upon them.  It is not easy failing marginal teams, but the need to separate reliable teams from unreliable teams is essential.  The credibility of the evaluator and the certifying entity is at stake on each and every certification test.  As previously mentioned, the need for explosives detection teams to be nearly perfect cannot go understated.

There exist distinct operational differences between one discipline to the next and it is vital that an explosives detector dog and handler are aware of these differences.  An explosives detector dog team has very little room for error and the obedience to the target odor, and the task, is imperative to the success of the team.  Beyond the initial “basic training”, a good explosives detector dog and handler must stay abreast of latest trends and worldwide occurrences in order to be better prepared and maintain their state of readiness and awareness. Varying objectives including scenario based training and varying thresholds and environments will better prepare a team for actual deployments.

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