Reporting from Washington — Wanted, to serve their country: a few (thousand) good dogs.
As it guards the borders and hunts for terrorists, the Department of Homeland Security relies on an elite squad of about 2,000 canines to sniff for bombs, drugs and smuggled cash.
Now the department is moving to expand its four-legged force by 3,000 — about 600 dogs a year over the next five years — according to a recent bid solicitation aimed at small breeders across the country.
Males and females ages 12 months to 36 months are eligible. The department is looking for Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, Belgian Malinois "or other working, herding or sporting breeds with prior approval."
Homeland Security says no training is necessary — their experts will handle that. But the candidates must be "alert, active, outgoing, confident" and "extremely tolerant of people," according to the solicitation, which sets a July 23 deadline.
Depending on their proposed uses, the dogs will be subject to a series of tests for courage and toughness, including the ability to disregard blows from a stick.
Among the biggest canine users is Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol. Customs officers have about 550 canine teams at ports of entry, and the Border Patrol has an additional 850 teams in the border regions.
The dogs have helped save "literally thousands of lives a year" by tracking illegal immigrants who have strayed into remote areas without enough food and water, said Clark Larson, who runs the customs and border agency's canine program "There is no technology that trumps the cold nose of a dog."
Dogs also help the Federal Emergency Management Agency hunt for survivors or remains after disasters. They board ships with the Coast Guard and sniff for bombs for the Secret Service.
The Transportation Security Administration is requesting $71 million this year to set up 275 new explosives-detection canine teams in airports.
Some security experts believe dogs could be cheaper and more effective in screening airline passengers than high-tech body imagers or metal detectors. The Department of Homeland Security has not adopted that view, but Secretary Janet Napolitano did tell lawmakers earlier this year that she favors a greater reliance on man's best friend for all sorts of tasks.
"Senator, I love dogs," she told Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).
"Me, too. Me, too," he interjected.
"We all love dogs," she said. "Dogs can be trained to sniff narcotics, bulk cash, arms … explosives — and we're using them in all those ways in airports and at ports of entry along the land."
She said the department is "increasing the number of dogs as fast as we can."
In 2008, the department's inspector general examined the customs and border agency's canine program and pronounced it a success.
From April 2006 through June 2007, the agency bought 322 untrained dogs at a cost of $1.46 million, or an average price of $4,535 each — a reasonable cost, the inspector general found.
The dogs were extremely effective, the examination concluded: Although only 4% of the Border Patrol's agents were canine handlers, they were credited with 60% of drug arrests and 40% of all other apprehensions in 2007.
There are occasional problems. A customs Belgian Malinois attacked a 4-year-old girl at Dulles International Airport in February, causing wounds to her abdomen that required 20 stitches, according to news reports.
But the successes have piled up. At Newark Airport last March, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois named Pistol sniffed out a duffel bag containing more than 50 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $1.6 million.
Dogs typically work for about 10 years, Larson said. They are not eligible for federal retirement benefits, but they do have a golden parachute of sorts: When they are too old to work, they often are adopted by their human partners.
"Their pension is sitting nicely by the fireplace with the handler," he said.