Earlier this month, Cynthia Otto, Executive Director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, testified at a Congressional hearing on homeland security canines that the demand for detection pups has increased to the point where the quality of dogs has suffered and the price has increased dramatically.
No agency outside of the United States military employs more bomb-sniffing canines than the Transportation Security Administration. This year, more than $120 million is budgeted for the TSA to place nearly a thousand bomb-sniffing dogs at airports, train stations, and other transportation spots, however they are having a hard time meeting that target since they don't have enough qualified pups. The TSA must replace 100 or more dogs per year because of retirement, health problems, or declining performance. For the first time since 9/11, the agency is seeking to purchase privately trained dogs. Previously all TSA pups were trained by federal employees at their dedicated facility at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas (you may remember an article we wrote back in November about this center's adoption program to find homes for dogs that didn't graduate from the program).
Sue Kjellsen of K2 Solutions, a company that supplies and trains IED detection pups for the military says that the demand for high quality Labradors has forced them to start looking abroad for pups. Eastern Europe has been a popular source because dogs there have been historically bred for police and other detection work. In America, dogs tend to be bred for companionship and show, which eliminates many breeders.
According to Sue, the dogs from K2 can search about 200 people per minute. Even technology can't replace these talented canines. TSA explosives detection handler Doug Timerlake says that no machine can detect the presence of explosive materials a way a dog can. While machines can confirm the presence of explosive substances, they can't reason and problem solve to find the source. Dogs can also work off leash to monitor open spaces and large areas more easily.
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Most people don't believe going overseas for dogs is a good long term solution. There have been many alternatives proposed, such as expanding the breeds considered for detection work and creating a national breeding program, but it's still a dilemma being worked through.
These dogs play an important and unique role in our security. I just hope these programs don't forget that they're not merely looking at numbers that can be adjusted to find the most cost effective solution. They are living, breathing animals that deserve the best care and decision making around their future in this country.