Sniffer dogs are used for so many aspects of our daily lives that we often take their work for granted. One area that we can’t overlook is the importance of their work in explosives detection. Unfortunately, we are currently understaffed when it comes to this valuable group of canines at the moment. The pandemic has apparently exacerbated an already short supply of specially-bred canines for this particular job.
Cindy Otto, the executive director of the PennVet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has been sounding the alarm for this shortage since at least 2016. “We rely heavily on procurement of dogs from other countries,” she testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee six years ago. “By outsourcing our national security requirements, we give up control of the type of dogs, the health of the dogs, and the early training of the dogs. We also are at risk for supply interruption due to politics, disaster, or disease.”
As of February 2022, the federal government employs a total of 5,159 dogs to perform a variety of tasks ranging from detecting explosives on Amtrak trains to sniffing out various diseases. However, only seven percent of these canines come from the United States, with the rest predominantly imported from Europe. So, when the pandemic hit, dogs were already a hard-to-find commodity.
The American Kennel Club
“The canine nose is the best technology we have for locating explosives, so we need to have a very consistent and high-quality source of dogs,” Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations at the American Kennel Club explained to Wired’s Lily Hay Newman. “We used to talk about, ‘Well, what if there’s a global crisis or geopolitical issues, we’re not going to be able to get all of these dogs we’re importing from Europe,’ and then it happened.”
Canines have 300 million olfactory scent receptors, providing a dog’s nose with anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitivity than a human’s (humans only have 6 million). Rodents are another creature with super sniffers, and giant African pouched rats are often employed as landmine detectors. An elephant’s proboscis is another highly tuned sniffer, but they’re not exactly ideal for the work necessary. So, where does that leave us?
All the Right Stuff
Besides the ability to sniff, the right temperament for the job is equally important, making dogs the number one choice for the job. The animals best suited are sturdy yet friendly working breeds, but breeding and training canines with these traits is not cheap. To date, experts here believe that increasing the number of trained dogs bred in U.S. Programs is the answer.
“There is not yet a road map to a complete solution to domestic sourcing for detection dogs,” Skip Bartol, associate dean of research and graduate studies at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, told Wired. “But what we are trying to do is establish best scientific practices—everything from making sound genetic decisions about the breeding of detector canines to their development as puppies to how early environment affects their lifelong potential.”
For now, it’s one day and one nose at a time.