Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bomb Dogs & Terrorism

I've spent a lot of time thinking about the state of airport safety since 9/11. My home airport is Logan International in Boston, where many of the hijacked flights originated. I flew into that airport less than 24 hours before the hijackings and that flight to Los Angeles was one that I often took. Yes, I was rattled. There but for the Grace of God....

Since then, we've supposedly had an increase in security. After the shoe bomber attempt, we all had to remove our shoes for screening. We still do. Travel with a dog or cat and you'll be treated to what amounts to Theatre of The Absurd. I've flown with both species but let's focus on one. It was after 9/11 and I was flying with my cat to visit friends. Clearing airport security is always a juggling act if you're carrying a laptop computer. Carry your laptop companion (who isn't allowed to sit on your lap) and you'll find yourself going through some interesting contortions. Beyond that, however, is the reaction of the TSA people who are supposed to be on the alert for terrorists.

You are required to remove your small companion from their carrier; the carrier is sent through the screening device and you and your cat (or dog) walk through the metal detector. My cat, a lovely Chartreux, is blue which is standard for the breed. Blue is the correct color name but most people refer to blue cats as gray. I tell you this for a reason which will become clear in a moment. As I took Aimee out of her carrier and held her close to me so if she panicked she wouldn't escape from a firm hold, TSA agents came rushing over to us. "Oh! A kitty!" "What's her name?" "Aimee." "It should be Smokey." "Or Stormy." "Or Shadow!" They were so busy gushing over my cat that they wouldn't have noticed if an assortment of Terrorists passed through the screening area. I was really upset but wasn't sure of my ground. What would they do to me if I pointed out that they should be doing their jobs instead of fussing over Aimee whose name was not about to be changed no matter what they thought. And, frankly, I didn't want to be held up, either. I wanted to pass through the metal detector as quickly as possible in order to get Aimee back into the safety of her carrier.

I stopped flying her because I didn't want to be the cause of a TSA Agent not paying attention to the task at hand.

This week we've heard much about airport screening since a Terrorist who had been someone of interest was allowed on a plane in Europe that was headed to the United States. He tried to set off a bomb on board and was stopped by some alert passengers who apparently tackled him. Had he succeeded, not only would every person on the plane have been killed but many people on the ground as well. The reactions, among others, was to have people stay in their seats for the last hour of the flight. Which makes me wonder if we're all supposed to wear adult diapers. And no one can hold anything inflight. My paperback book of choice is not going to get me through any more long trips if their knee-jerk reaction becomes a policy.

So the issue is once again raised: how to prevent it. When the shoe bomber tried to set off a bomb in his shoe, it was decided that all passengers have to remove their shoes for screening. This latest terrorist had the explosive material in his underwear so the reaction is to use invasive screening apparatus that may or may not be able to detect a bomb but will certainly be the visual equivalent of a full-body orifice check. The reaction is always just that: a reaction and nothing that seems to have had forethought. This latest is a particularly expensive option. And still those in high places insist that the TSA screeners are the best option. Well, if they're not admiring my cat, perhaps they are but I'm not convinced.

Here's what I am convinced of, as is just about any dog person: a bomb dog can easily alert to a bomb and far less expensively than any machine and probably more accurately than a TSA employee.

I've heard the objections: they can't work all the time; some people are allergic to dogs; some people don't want a dog sniffing their crotch. Well, for those who are allergic, they can take an antihistamine before leaving for the airport; for those who don't want a dog sniffing their crotch, well, it's less invasive than those machines, and Auburn University is working on a method to train dogs to sniff from a distance - the olfactory system of a dog is a wonderous thing. As for dogs working shorter hours, well, have several teams trained! It's a whole lot cheaper than one of those machines and the dog will not be suggesting names for your four-legged companion.

Today, someone sent me a link to a CNN story about the use of bomb dogs. They mentioned the objections as well as the benefits. My only objection was that the dogs were wearing choke or prong collars. An old and unnecessary way to train dogs that has been scientifically proven to be problematic.

Years ago, before the real terrorist threats, I wrote an article on Bomb Dogs for Dog World Magazine. It was pretty thorough and contained all the information anyone would need, sans the training technique which would have been releasing confidential information. It wasn't necessary to do that and I wouldn't jeopardize my Country's security. I was told a couple of years later that when the FBI had visited the Massachusetts bomb dog unit which was - and still is to my knowledge - based at Logan Airport, they took a copy of my article back to Washington with them. They had been thinking of ending the bomb dog program and I was told that my article helped to save it. I hope that's true.

So, here's the conclusion: please let me have my paperback book, an opportunity to use the rest room before the plane lands, and for heaven's sake, let me keep my shoes on in the airport and once again comfortably carry a four-legged companion with me. Just get the bomb dog program beefed up and we'll all be safer and happier.


Stephanie Smith, Ph.D. said...

Well said, Darlene. We are the laughing stock of the world with our useless screening and restrictive policies. Profiling, bomb dogs, and common sense would do a lot more to make airplanes safe again than the TSA ever will.

Pam Johnson-Bennett said...

Bravo Darlene. Well said.

Iggylil said...

Good thoughts, Darlene! Next thing you know we'll all be strip searched or maybe have to fly nude so we can't hide anything. Bomb sniffing dogs would be SO much better than what we have or what we're threatened with having.

Lilian Barber

Jeanine Patterson said...

Boy does your article make complete sense! A dogs sense of smell is unbelievably sensitive (several hundred times more sensitive than humans)and utilizing their extreme and innate ability in this area of expertise simply makes sense! Well said, Darlene!

Susan said...

Having served as a volunteer SAR dog manager and handler I am continually perplexed as to why we do not employ more dogs in all ports of call. They cover ground so much faster and more thoroughly. It would also provide jobs for dog handlers and possibly save some otherwise abandoned dog. I also agree that we should have more profiling and common sense. It is sad that we need to profile, but thanks to some bad guys, it is necessary. Thanks Darlene for a wonderful article.
Sue Bulanda

Dr Toodie said...

The government failed, not once, but twice to do their job and realize this guy had a visa and was on the watch list. The airlines failed to do their job in not worrying about a Nigerian, coming from yemen, buying a one way ticket for $3K cash and flying with no luggage. TSA failed to do their job in srcreening the guy adequately. The only people who did their job properly were the passengers who were perfect! So who is being punished for all the failures? That's right- the passengers!!. Time for a revolution

Newfie Nation said...

Hear, hear! Bomb dogs are the simplest and most accurate and cost effective option out there. Seems to me that someone has an agenda (pro-technology or anti-dog).

Anonymous said...

Plus more bomb dogs could mean homes for more dogs from shelters. We have two Champion Trackers in our household right now & I have told my family if I am ever lost, please just get one of the dogs. The nose, (at least the canine nose) knows!
Deb E

mgangler said...

At least the screeners were friendly to your cat. One of the last times I flew with one of my dogs, the screener started screaming that she was afraid of my small dog. This scared my dog so much I couldn't get her back into her Sherpa bag. A little professionalism would be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

A person I've trained under also flies around the world to conduct seminars on training puppies and dogs to sniff out all sorts of nasty things. During one international trip of hers, shortly after 9/11, she'd been training dogs in explosive detection. Needless to say, the detection dogs in US customs did their job and, well, detected that she'd been handling explosives. Once it was all sorted out, she said, it became another fun story to tell folks.
Moral: yes, the dogs can sniff out anything you train them for, and yes, the scent remains despite days of showers or baths. Bring on the Dogs!
Linda Rehkopf
Labrador retriever owner/trainer/handler

S. Janson said...

Darlene, you are spot on. I have no doubt that bomb dogs are the best and most cost effective way to ensure our safety when flying the not so friendly skies. As a passenger, I am really tired of being punished because people on the front lines don't do their jobs. I will have to fly again soon and I am dreading the flight itself, but would welcome a bomb dog on duty in every airport. And I would sure feel safer. To those who do not want dogs sniffing body areas, I say tough--stay at home or take another means of transportation. This goes for people who are afraid of dogs as well.

Genny said...

Wow, I love this post. It makes perfect sense. I think part of the problem is that the people they use for screening are not really trained. They rely on machines too much, plus their sense of authority is way overboard in my opinion. I for one don't like the body screening imager. It's a total invasion of personal privacy. You need to send this to the New York Times or some other widely read newspaper. It make perfect sense.

Lifestyles of Celebrity Pets said...

I agree with you 100%. Properly trained dog teams are needed. The last time I was on the train, there was a 3 hour stop and the dog teams came on and searched the train before it left the station. That was several years ago and I hope they are still doing that. Dogs are a pretty good judge of character, too...I know mine is.

Thank you.
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