TSA dog teams hunt for explosives, boost security and speed travelers along

By:  Bart Jansen
Source: USA Today

Biko the German shepherd may be your ticket to a fast pass through airport security next time you travel.

The Transportation Security Administration has upped the number of sniffer dogs at the nation's biggest airports, and the extra wet noses are cutting down on the long waits travelers experienced last year.

Biko doesn't snarl. But his nails click on the linoleum floor as he scurries between passengers walking past red-padded airport seats. The TSA dog weaves between the guy wearing a T-shirt and khaki pants with a backpack and the younger woman with a pink-and-gray ball cap carrying a striped backpack.

Trouble arrives in the form of a bald, bearded guy in a red Hawaiian shirt carrying a black laptop bag. Biko tenses and pulls handler John Peeler to the laptop bag before the man turns the corner.

It's a simulated exercise, and the man is a role player carrying an actual explosive. 

And the reward for Biko, a dog trained to detect a dozen scents of explosives? A rubber chew toy to gnaw on, with a hug from Peeler.

“Biko places a lot of value on interaction," said Peeler, a TSA training instructor. “I just tell him he’s a good boy."

Speedier screening is one of the benefits of the TSA's dog detection program, a relief to travelers in the past year.

In spring 2016, checkpoint lines grew to hours long at airports across the countrythrough a confluence of reduced staffing and tighter security. By bolstering staffing with contributions from airlines and airports, TSA also moved 28 dog teams from smaller, lower-risk locations to higher-risk airports — and the lines evaporated.

After a dog has screened a regular checkpoint line, each passenger qualifies for the expedited Precheck program, where they can leave on shoes and belts and keep laptops and small containers of liquids in their bags.

“Explosive-detection canines are an important tool to increase screening efficiency at checkpoints,” said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which received extra dog teams last summer. “We have seen a noticeable difference in how quickly the lines move when the dogs are working.”


TSA maintains 1,047 teams of bomb-sniffing dogs and their handlers for about $152 million per year, which includes buying dogs and training them and their handlers. The teams patrol 82 airports, along with 33 bus, rail and transit systems.

TSA itself staffs 372 dog teams, mostly for airports. TSA also covers the $24,000 average cost to buy and train each dog, and its handler, to provide 675 dogs for state and local law enforcement agencies. Those 100 agencies commit to spending 80% of their time on transportation, such as ferries or mass transit.

Congress is debating adding hundreds more — if the money can be found.

“More dog teams are needed to detect explosives and serve as visible deterrents to terrorists at airports, rail, transit and ports across the country,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

A lane at a security checkpoint that typically handles 150 passengers per hour can process up to 250 per hour with canine teams.

“Our airports are economic drivers and we cannot have two hour wait times, missed flights and customer frustration,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “In short, the dog teams get passengers through checkpoints sooner while increasing safety levels.”

The Port of Seattle Police Department, which patrols Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, added three dog teams this year, for a total of 11, to screen the airport and seaport.

The dog teams helped meet a goal of getting at least 95% of travelers through checkpoints within 20 minutes, and most in 10 minutes or less, according to Brian DeRoy, an airport spokesman.

“As Sea-Tac approaches the 50 million passenger a year mark, canines are essential to the safety and quality of our customer experience,” DeRoy said.

Passengers like the dogs, even if they’re not for petting. John Boyd of Marina Del Rey, Calif., a global trade consultant who is part of USA TODAY's Road Warriors panel of frequent travelers, said he prefers the dogs to heavily armed officers who also patrol airports.

“It brings an added level of comfort and calming feel to the TSA lines,” Boyd said.

Bombs remain a threat in the air after a Russian Metrojet blew up over Egypt in October 2015 and a laptop bomb blew a hole in a Daallo Airlines flight in Somalia in January 2016. Dogs are an important contributor to security because of their mobility patrolling public areas of airports after the Brussels airport bombing in March 2016 and the shooting deaths at the Fort Lauderdale airport in January 2017.

“You can move that capability toward wherever that threat is,” said Chris Shelton, branch manager of TSA's National Canine Training Center in San Antonio. “With a big piece of machinery bolted to the floor, you can’t do that.”

Anthony Roman, an aviation-security expert and a commercial pilot who is president of Roman & Assoc. in Lynbrook, N.Y., said the mobility and unpredictability of where dogs will be offers another layer of security with X-ray machines and surveillance cameras with facial recognition.

“They have a terrific record of success and yes, we need many more of these dogs,” Roman said. Terrorists “never really know where the dog is going to be and they never know if the dog is going to target them.”

On any given day, the canine teams screen 120,000 to 130,000 passengers at airport checkpoints and respond to 109 calls for unattended items or vehicles, according to Melanie Harvey, TSA’s director of threat assessment. A dog checking an unattended bag can prevent a terminal evacuation.

TSA officials say the dogs occasionally find explosives used in the bags of military or law enforcement. The results are double-checked by machine with a swab for traces of explosives.

Dirk Robertson of Waynesboro, Pa., a writer who is also a USA TODAY Road Warrior, noticed a security dog sniff a traveler and indicate further investigation was required.

“The gentleman, looking despondent, and the case were led off,” Robertson said. “The dog looked happy though.”

Congress added 50 dogs this fiscal year to reduce lines — and security threats.

A Senate bill proposes to add 70 more TSA teams immediately to the 181 that already patrol surface and maritime transportation. Another 200 TSA dogs could be hired by 2022, depending on reviews.

Funding could be a hurdle. The added teams would cost an estimated $51 million through 2022, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

President Trump proposed to eliminate TSA’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams, which also patrol the public spaces in airports and bus and train stations, so extra funding for dog teams could be difficult to find.

“While there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for TSA’s continued use of canine teams, the worry is that funding them isn’t a priority for the administration,” Nelson said.


Dogs have been used to detect chemicals for at least 12,000 years, based on tomb evidence cited in scientific studies. Since World War II, the military has used dog teams extensively to locate explosives.

“Overall, detector dogs still represent the fastest, most versatile, reliable real-time explosive detection device available,” said a widely cited 2001 study by Kenneth Furton of Florida International University and Lawrence Myers of Auburn University.

Demand for bomb-sniffing dogs in aviation has grown since a touchstone incident in March 1972. Amid a flurry of hijackings and bomb plots, a German shepherd named Brandy with the New York Police Department found a bomb on an evacuated TWA flight at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport minutes before it went off.

President Nixon ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to develop security measures such as metal detectors to screen passengers and bomb-sniffing dogs for luggage.

FAA’s initial program fielded 40 dogs at 20 airports. In 1996, after a spate of suspected terror incidents, Congress approved an extra $8.9 million to add 114 more dog teams, based on a recommendation from a commission headed by Vice President Al Gore.

By 2002, when the program shifted to the TSA after the 9/11 hijackings, 190 dogs were patrolling 40 airports.

Bruce Butterworth, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute and a former director of civil aviation security operations at FAA, said the dogs are good for mobility, an extremely acute sense of smell and because of their reputation for effectiveness.

But dogs are also smart enough to angle for rewards without completing thorough searches, so they have to be rigorously trained and tested.

“This is where Ronald Reagan’s phrase ‘trust but verify’ comes in,” Butterworth said.

TSA’s $12 million training center opened in March 2016 to consolidate operations that had been in borrowed space at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. The 25,000-square-foot center with five classrooms and a 100-seat auditorium has been ramping up to train 300 dogs this year, many of which will replace dogs that retire for age or injuries.

“It’s a continual state of growth,” Shelton said.

The advantage dogs enjoy is an ability to sniff out the elements of an explosive, such as nitroglycerine found in dynamite or RDX found in C4. Dogs can detect scents from amounts of explosive as small as one part per billion, which is comparable to one second in 32 years.

Peter Katauskas, a TSA training instructor, compared it to a person smelling a pizza when walking into a restaurant, while a dog smells the cheese and pepperoni and oregano.

“Their nose is so sensitive, they break that all down,” Katauskas said. “You’re not getting rewarded for finding pizza, you’re getting rewarded for finding sausage on the pizza.”

Susan Hallowell, former director of the federal Transportation Security Lab, said dogs are trained on about a dozen scents that might not be the explosive itself, but a related smell. She compared it to the “new car smell,” which is the gas from a volatile organic compound rather than the actual plastic in the car.

“Each explosive has a unique scent,” Hallowell said. “Explosives have a whole range of vapor pressures, for the explosives with higher volatility, the dogs can cue on the actual explosive, as is the case with nitroglycerin found in dynamite.”


TSA set up 17 scenarios to train dogs how to search so they are familiar moving around an airport gate or a terminal hallway or climbing over the seats of a wide-body plane to sniff the overhead bins.

Six hulls of former 737 airliners are lined up on the grass near the mesquite trees. Retired trolley cars and D.C. Metro buses sit nearby. About 150 people, mostly retired from the military or young adults, work at the center each day as role-playing passengers sitting at an airport gate or schlepping bags through a terminal.

“Our goal here is to expose the canines to everything that they could potentially see in their operational environment,” Shelton said. “We also take them out to San Antonio airport.”

A cluster of corrugated-metal training buildings offers no hint about the challenges inside. One houses the shell of a wide-body airliner that went out of fashion with ashtrays and the yellow-and-gray fabric on its seats. Never mind: Dogs aren’t looking for color.

Pierre Allyne of the Federal Protective Service leads Bili, a German short-haired pointer to each seat and occasionally sniffing up to the overhead bin above.

“Good boy,” Allyne tells Bili as they finish a row.

The dogs need to be large enough to reach those spots, so TSA focuses on seven breeds: German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, German short-haired pointers, wire-haired pointers, Vizslas, Belgian Malinois and golden retrievers.

“We’re looking at their drive. By drive, it’s their willingness to work. By work, we mean look for their toy. They’re toy focused,” Shelton said. “It’s a pleasant, happy experience for the dog and the handler because it’s all a big game.”

Outside the fuselage, suitcases have been spread out in a line for dogs to check individually. The dogs are taught to sniff along zippers and seams for the scent within, and then to approach each bag separately after a walk in a circle.

“The target odor that we’re looking for is contained and deep,” said Rick Reidel, a training instructor. “It creates this environment for dogs to look for smaller thresholds of odor.”

Carlos Cruz, a member of the Federal Protective Service, chirps encouragement along with a high-pitched “seek” as Liza, a frisky German short-haired pointer, sniffs along the line of bags.

Squeak! A chewy ball is the reward for finding the explosive in a small purple roller bag.

“Woo!” Cruz said. “Good.”

Another building is decorated like an airport terminal has rings of seats, complete with old magazines and a scrap of aluminum foil to distract the dogs. Pictures of the Atlanta airport stand in for window views. A box for the San Antonio Express-News has the edition from June 9, 2006, with the headline: “Terrorist’s killing won’t cure Iraq.”

TSA instructor Shawn Farrens, encourages handlers to remain calm and attentive for changes in behavior — and don’t yank the chain — while the dogs nuzzle along the seats or a fire extinguisher or a water fountain.

“Let the story develop,” Farrens said. “Don’t try to jump to conclusions in Chapter One.”

Mira, a German short-haired pointer, noses her way to the explosive in a mock bathroom. After the find, Scott Hastings, a handler from the Birmingham Police Department, congratulates her with a “good girl” and a squeaky ball.

“It’s just a glorified Easter egg hunt,” Farrens said. “If she's not having fun, we’re doing something wrong.