"Detector Dogs" Sniff Out Smugglers for U.S. Customs

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Predominantly hunting and working breeds, Makolin explained, "labs, golden retrievers, German shepherds, Belgian malinois—those have been successful breeds in the past."

"Because they are pound dogs they are not really pedigreed, but the hunting breeds are good. That's what they are bred for, so hopefully the right traits are in there genetically," he said.

For aspiring Customs dogs, breed is less important than behavior. Dogs must show the right stuff to be considered for border work, and perhaps only one dog has it for each 100 screened.

Aspiring border dogs, male or female from one to three years of age, must display an outgoing, curious personality. Because of the hectic environment in which they work, they need to remain calm and focused around loud noises and hectic situations like border-crossing traffic or crowds of people. Perhaps most importantly, they must display the passion for retrieving that will form the basis of their training. If a dog becomes totally excited by retrieving, and retrieves anything for anyone, anywhere, anytime without tiring, he or she might have a future with U.S. Customs.

Will Work for Food

All U.S. Customs Service dogs are trained at the Canine Enforcement Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia, approximately 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of Washington, D.C. Established in 1974, the center is located on government property that once served as a U.S. Cavalry remount station. At any given time, about 100 dogs (not counting the puppies of the breeding program) are at the facility training, preparing to train, or awaiting their first assignment. They are partnered there with their future handlers for a rugged 13-week course. At the facility, dog and handler will become an enforcement team that is never separated—dogs work with only one handler for the duration of their careers. About 90 canine enforcement teams graduate each year.

The human officers are taught canine nutrition and basic dog care by veterinarians. They also learn how to read the "alert" their dog will raise when drugs have been scented. For many of the handlers, it's their first time as dog officers. Here, new students, known as "green" dogs and handlers, both learn at the same time.

The dogs are taught to detect drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, and methamphetamines. Some are even taught to detect currency, which can tip authorities off to smuggling activity.

Makolin describes the training system as one of Pavlovian response. "The biggest factor is that our reward system is a play reward," he said. "It's all just a big game for the dog. The whole idea is that the dog thinks that his reward is coming once he finds the odor."

Trainers begin by scenting towels with narcotics odors and having the dogs retrieve them. Eventually, they begin to place the odor in sealed containers, and train the dogs to seek it out. Advanced training includes work on conveyor belts.

Some 20 to 40 percent of the dogs will "wash out," but it's not because they're bad dogs—some just lose interest in the repetitive nature of long shifts at U.S. ports of entry. "We're out there on the ground, shaking down the trees," said Makolin. "We're actively pursuing drugs rather than waiting for specific information so we really need animals with a really high drive. We need that dog who just fetches the ball all day and never tires of it."

Dropout dogs might end up with a police department or another organization that doesn't mind having an animal with a lower drive. If not, they will be adopted. All the non-graduating dogs will remain in Front Royal until they are placed in a good home.

Successful graduates enter the field to work full eight-hour days, and sometimes 16-hour double shifts at airports, seaports, and border crossings across the United States. Five hundred thirty-three teams are currently at work screening aircraft, cargo, baggage, mail, ships, vehicles, and passengers entering the U.S.

As officer and dog build a rapport, they become ever more efficient in working together—a key reason why teams are never broken up. "Each dog has a unique personality just as each officer does," Makolin said. "He can't talk but he's an integral part of the team."

The longer the teams work together, the more efficient they become at reading each other's actions and reactions. The familiarity leads to more effective enforcement.

Canine units are not only amazingly effective at intercepting drugs, they also move quickly. A trained dog can examine a vehicle in about 5 minutes, whereas even a cursory search by a human inspector would take at least 20 minutes. A canine team can also examine 400 to 500 packages in about 30 minutes, a fraction of the time a human inspection would consume.

No human can detect drugs in the way these canine specialists can. "It's amazing," said Makolin. "I've seen them pick up alerts as far as 14 lanes of traffic away." "A dog gets a whiff of an odor, takes off with his handler, and 14 lanes of traffic later he finds 300 pounds [136 kilograms] of marijuana. It happens in an instant."

Jim Copulos, chief of the West Texas/New Mexico Customs Management Center Canine Program, is justifiably proud of the success of the detector dogs. "They've found drugs in tires, gas tanks, inside engine compartments and transmissions, every possible place you could think of in an automobile," he said. "There is no doubt that without the dogs some of that contraband would go on down the road. I mean, you can't take everyone's transmission apart. There's no doubt in my mind that if the dogs hadn't alerted on some of these cases the vehicles would have been down the road."

The dogs remain on the job until age or infirmity makes them incapable of manning their posts. Then, they ease into a well-deserved retirement. Because of the strong bonds formed on a tough and dangerous job, that usually means adoption by their handlers.

Dogs With Jobs

Viewers of the National Geographic Channel outside the United States can watch the television series Dogs With Jobs.

Now in its third season, Dogs With Jobs explores new and unusual jobs and sheds more light on the powerful bonds between working dogs and their human partners. Every episode stars amazing dogs.

This season of Dogs with Jobs sniffs out a truffle hound in Italy and goes to Florida to track down a bat dog and a termite buster. Fourteen breeds never before seen on the show make an appearance, including Japanese Shiba Inu, Gos d'Atura Catala (Catalan sheepdogs), Spanish water dogs, the Hungarian Pumi, and Karelian bear dogs.

National Geographic Animals and Nature Guide: Go >>

Visit our international Web sites for details of the National Geographic Channel listings in your country.

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