A Few Good Dogs

The German shepherd's fur bristled. Sniffing the air, his nose twitched and his black body stiffened. From ears to tail the dog froze, silently alerting the platoon to the approaching enemy. Armed with a superhuman sense of smell, the dog sensed strangers 1,000 yards away. Any chance of being ambushed was destroyed.

Trained to detect soldiers the way golden retrievers are taught to ferret out pheasants, the German shepherd, Chips, spotted enemies hiding in trees, crouching in ditches or lying in fields. He picked out trip wires, booby traps and mines just as easily.

Chips was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. When people think of military dogs, they usually think of Chips--one of 10,000 dogs that served in World War II.

More than half a century later, in the wake of September 11, the stock in dogs like Chips has skyrocketed. German shepherds that once cost $2,000 now sell for close to $20,000.

The Los Angeles Times declared bomb-detecting dogs a must-have item. Congress doubled the Federal Aviation Administration's budget in order to train more dogs to patrol the nation's busiest airports.

All FAA dogs are trained in Texas, and several national security-dog companies are based here, too. Right now, they're all searching for German shepherds. But because of the surge in demand, breeders throughout the United States and Europe are selling out of quality shepherds. Even small-town dog pounds have been picked over.

"Everybody wants dogs," says Paul Howard, a dog trainer who went on the FAA's last buying trip to Europe. "We're gonna deplete the market."

Dogs like Chips are rarer than talking monkeys, so dogs like Max have been recruited.

Max is a 2-year-old Border collie with amber eyes, a black face and shaggy white fur. Six inches shorter than the average German shepherd, he's a cuddly, bouncy dog who only sits still for half-second intervals. He looks as if he should be helping a cowboy rustle cattle instead of hunting bombs.

Max is trained to detect the odors of 15 types of explosives, from dynamite to TNT. And his owners at Gainesville-based BJR Security say he's the best bomb dog on the squad.

"He's like that pro-kicker [record-setting Tampa Bay Buccaneer Martin] Gramatica," says Max's former handler Darren Beaudin. "He's a sure thing."

But some police officers say they wouldn't want him in the back of their patrol cars.

Thirty years ago this month, Trans World Airlines officials received an anonymous phone call that a plane traveling from New York to Los Angeles had a bomb on board. The jet returned to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and an explosive-detecting dog named Brandy was summoned. The German shepherd found two bombs in the bathroom wall 12 minutes before they were set to explode.

That day, March 9, 1972, President Richard Nixon called for increased airport security. As a result, the FAA placed bomb-detecting dogs in Houston, Los Angeles and Cleveland. The three airports were chosen so American flights could quickly divert to an airport with a bomb-dog squad.

Houston was selected because it already had been targeted by terrorists, says Sergeant Rex Robertson, head of the Houston Police Department bomb-dog squad. Earlier that year, he says, an Eastern Airlines ticket agent was killed at Houston Intercontinental Airport by a man hijacking a flight to Cuba.

Over the years, whenever planes mysteriously went down or exploded, the program was expanded. By the mid-1990s, dog teams were stationed within 30 minutes of the nation's largest airports. Last year, 175 dogs worked at 39 airports.

After the World Trade Center towers collapsed, Congress allocated $6 million in emergency funds to expand the Federal Aviation Administration's airport canine corps. With its budget doubled, the FAA added 15 dogs to check abandoned bags, rental cars and suspicious-looking people. The Transportation Security Administration has taken charge of the FAA canine corps, and by the end of next year the administration wants to have 300 bomb-sniffing dogs stationed at the nation's 80 busiest airports. (DFW International Airport, the world's third-busiest, has six K-9 teams and plans to add more.)

"We'd always planned to grow the program slowly," says Rebecca Trexler, FAA spokeswoman. "But since the attack, we're trying to ramp up pretty quickly."

All U.S. military dogs are trained at the 700-acre Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio. The day after the terrorist attacks, officials at Lackland doubled the bomb-detecting dog class size, extended the training day to nine hours and started working dogs six days a week. At the FAA's request, instructors expedited training and graduated the class in session three weeks early. That was the last scheduled course of the year, but FAA officials asked Master Sergeant John Pearce to certify another group of bomb dogs before Christmas.

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Wendy Grossman