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Must-Have Item: a Bomb-Sniffing Dog

Safety: They are sought for airports, courts, malls, sporting events, as their presence reassures the public. The demand has officials scrambling to recruit more canines.

November 13, 2001|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mounting anxieties over terrorism have transformed bomb-sniffing dogs into among the most valuable members of the police force.

Bomb squads have seen requests for service jump threefold or more since Sept. 11, and in an effort to cope with the deluge, law enforcement agencies from Orange County to Palm Springs are scrambling to recruit more bomb dogs.

So too is the Federal Aviation Administration, which is shelling out $6 million to train 90 new dogs for airport security.

The surge in demand has created a run on police pooches in kennels across the country, with orders frequently four or five times the number they were before the terrorist attacks. It also has the dogs already on the job working overtime sniffing suspicious packages and sweeping banquet halls and classrooms.

Or in the case of Buck, an 8-year-old black Labrador, carefully inspecting a white van parked in a dirt lot last week as part of a training exercise. The busiest member of the Orange County sheriff's bomb squad, Buck had a face taut with concentration, his tail wagging furiously.

But the department's lone bomb-sniffing dog hardly needs the practice these days, given the seemingly never-ending stream of assignments.

The department is training another dog to ease Buck's workload and hopes to buy three more in the next few months.

"Everyone wants the dogs," said Sheriff's Investigator Leon Bennigsdorf, Buck's handler. "There's been so many requests we've had to turn some down."

At Adlerhorst International Inc. in Riverside, which boasts one of the country's largest privately run police dog schools, trainers used to see one bomb dog every three months.

Now, the latest class of 2001 has six wannabe bomb dogs, with classes for more fully booked through New Year's.

"It's amazing. They are blue-chip items right now," said Pip Reaver, who runs the kennel with her husband.

The story is the same in Banning, where Work Dogs International trains canines for departments across California. There, trainers typically instruct nine bomb dogs a year.

But in the last two months, nearly 30 orders for new dogs have flooded the kennel.

Orders have come not only from the Orange County Sheriff's Department but from private security firms and film studios, said kennel owner Patrick Beltz. Some have hired dogs for just a few hours, as in the case of one businessman who wanted the luggage on his Lear jet sniffed before he flew.

"It's a welcome sight for us . . . but it's sad to have happened after such a tragedy," Beltz said.

Those who can't wait for their own dog are turning to security companies like the one run by Tony Lavelle, who hires out his bomb-detection dogs in Sacramento.

Lavelle, chief executive of Detection Support Services Bomb Dogs, said he worked 36 hours without sleep the day hijackers rammed jets into the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Since then, demand has remained high. Amusement parks, synagogues, shopping malls--even the National Football League and the National Basketball Assn.--have called Lavelle asking for help, he said.

Dog handlers at his company who typically worked 17-hour weeks before the attacks are now on duty up to 60 hours or more.

So far, none of the company's dogs have found any bombs. But Lavelle credits their work with something almost as valuable as detecting a device: providing peace of mind.

"One of the most effective ways to calm people down is seeing that dog out there," he said. "I went to a courthouse where people were so scared they were going to stage a sickout. They were so relieved to see us."

Stretched to the limit, Lavelle plans to buy more dogs. But even he will have to wait as the kennels scramble to keep up with orders.

Buying and training a dog that will be able to sniff out explosives can be expensive, running as high as $8,000.

At Work Dogs, Beltz trains his animals to sniff out a dozen different types of explosive ingredients, from which nearly all bombs are made.

Over a 10-week course, the dogs are rewarded with toys to chew on each time they find gunpowder and other types of bomb-making material.

The toys build a powerful association in the dogs' minds between finding an explosive and getting a reward. When they catch a whiff of an explosive, they are trained to abruptly sit down.

"The dog has no idea of the danger he's looking for," Beltz said. "It's just a silly hide-and-seek game."

The result is that dogs like Buck in Orange County can detect even tiny amounts of explosives.

Buck has found bomb-making materials and weapons while searching homes of suspected gang members, said handler Bennigsdorf.

"I like to use the analogy that we can walk into a room and smell a cake," Bennigsdorf said. "They can walk into a room, smell the cake and tell you what the ingredients were and whether it was burned."

Although plenty of breeds have the nose to detect bombs, the Orange County Sheriff's Department favors Labradors because they are large enough to smell up high but won't intimidate onlookers.

Rocky, an alert but gentle-looking yellow Lab, is two weeks into a training course at Work Dogs that will eventually put him alongside Buck at the sheriff's bomb squad.

"He's being introduced to explosives right now. I think he's at the top of the class," said his handler, Sheriff's Investigator Tom Dominguez.

At the sheriff's training academy in Orange on Nov. 6, Dominguez put his dog to the test. Holding Rocky by a leash, he ordered the animal to search a Humvee parked in the academy's lot.

The dog jumped up and sniffed around the front grill, his tail slapping back and forth. He worked his way around behind the vehicle, smelling high and low. Suddenly, he sat down.

Wedged in the Humvee's bumper in front of him sat a 2-ounce chunk of C-4 explosive--enough to blow up anyone inside the vehicle.

"Good boy! Good boy!" shouted Dominguez. He threw the dog a tennis ball as a reward.

"Two weeks ago, he didn't know anything about odors. Now, he's all over it!"

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