Behind every bomb-sniffing dog at the airport is hours and hours of repetition and reward. For many, their training starts with a canine kindergarten and continues until they graduate from an elite academy run by MSA Security. Around 160 teams work with these dogs, usually in tandem with the same handler for eight or nine years, until the dog is retired. Smithsonian magazine looks into what goes into training these dogs and how, exactly, dogs detect bombs. Here’s an excerpt:
Merry and Zane Roberts, MSA’s lead canine trainer, work their way along the line of luggage pieces, checking for the chemical vapors-or “volatiles”-that come off their undersides and metal frames. Strictly speaking, the dog doesn’t smell the bomb. It deconstructs an odor into its components, picking out just the culprit chemicals it has been trained to detect. Roberts likes to use the spaghetti sauce analogy. “When you walk into a kitchen where someone is cooking spaghetti sauce, your nose says aha, spaghetti sauce. A dog’s nose doesn’t say that. Instinctively, it says tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, onion, oregano.” It’s the handler who says tomato sauce, or, as it happens, bomb.
Thanks, Smithsonian magazine. I will never smell spaghetti sauce the same way again.