Hunting for detection dogs as demand spikes

Group wants to create a national cooperative to breed, improve working dogs
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Well-trained detection dogs can locate drugs, bombs, people buried under rubble, smuggled food, pipeline leaks, game animals, and cancer.

But their versatility, especially for security purposes, is driving a global spike in demand. Dr. Cynthia Otto, executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said branches of the U.S. military and federal government are having trouble getting ahold of sufficient numbers of dogs to meet their needs.

Bobbie searching a bus
Bobbie, a German Shepherd Dog that now is a cancer detection dog, is shown while searching a bus during training with the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. (Photo by Kaleb Germinaro/Penn Vet)

The military and federal government rely on breeders in Eastern Europe for dogs, Dr. Otto said. She and leaders of the American Kennel Club are concerned that the best dogs stay in Europe or go to customers who pay premium prices.

"The U.S. is not really willing to pay as much as Saudi Arabia for these dogs," Dr. Otto said. "And so we're getting the dogs that are kind of on the bottom of the heap."

The U.S. lacks control over the supply chain, placing its access to dogs at risk from disease outbreaks or political unrest, Dr. Otto said. Buyers also lack input on genetics, breeding, health, and welfare of the dogs.

"I feel like, as veterinarians, we need to make a stand that we want to have some input," Dr. Otto said.

The Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the AKC are leading projects to make it easier for domestic dog breeders to sell to federal agencies and police departments, although through separate models. Dr. Otto favors a cooperative of U.S. dog breeders who could sell detection dogs primarily to federal agencies and maybe eventually to local police departments, private companies, or other governments if more dogs are available.

She wants to make it easier for small breeders to work with government procurement processes and use their combined expertise to improve dog breeding and training.

Carmen Battaglia, PhD, chair of the AKC Detection Dog Task Force, said the AKC favors, instead, helping breeders find more information on how to breed, raise, and socialize dogs, along with helping them find buyers. That includes providing a marketplace where breeders can advertise potential working dogs and—depending on whether they have gone through the process to become approved government vendors—sell the dogs either to middlemen or the agencies themselves.

Hoke searches a bus
Hoke, a Yellow Labrador Retriever that now works as an arson investigation and search and rescue dog, searches a bus during training at Penn Vet. (Photo by Kaleb Germinaro/Penn Vet)

The AKC model, already in a pilot program, is encouraging individual breeders to hang on to dogs until they become valuable for agencies.

Breeders, agencies hard to connect

Chris Shelton is the supervisory air marshal in charge at the Transportation Security Administration Canine Training Center at Joint Base San Antonio, where the agency trains dog teams for the TSA and its law enforcement partners, putting them to work in simulated transportation and cargo sites. He said the TSA has about 1,000 dogs and has been buying 300-400 in each of the past few years to replenish and expand the pack as it's diminished by aging dogs, health problems, and retiring handlers.

Buying qualified dogs gets tougher each year, he said. Many litters in the U.S. have puppies that would fit the TSA's needs, if the agency could connect with their owners.

The older age at which the government wants a puppy is problematic for breeders. Many kennels do not have facilities to maintain quantities of puppies for an additional six months or longer, especially with no guarantee of purchase at a later date.

Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations, American Kennel Club

The AKC estimates the U.S. has about 15,000 working dogs in government or private hands. About 20%—3,000 dogs—retire each year.

The Department of Defense runs a small breeding program focused on Belgian Malinois at Joint Base San Antonio, and the TSA shut down its Labrador Retriever–focused breeding program in 2012 because of budget cuts.

Sheila Goffe, the AKC's vice president of government relations, said she learned three years ago that 80-90% of the dogs used to detect explosives by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense were from another country. She advocates for dogs as the best technology for finding potential bombs and thinks American dogs have potential to be the world's best at that job.

Quackenbush sniffing a helmet
Quackenbush, a Black Labrador Retriever that now is a search and rescue dog in California, was bred and trained through the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. (Photo by Tracy Darling/Penn Vet)

Federal agencies buy a mix of purebred and mixed-breed dogs on the basis of detection ability, health, and personality. Goffe said the Labrador Retrievers and German Shorthaired Pointers typically used by the TSA are often easy to train, calm in crowds, and less intimidating than, say, a German Shepherd Dog.

Breeders in the U.S. also raise more Labradors than puppies of any other breed, she said.

Two years ago, testifying before a joint committee meeting of the House of Representatives on the use of dogs in security, Goffe said an AKC-led team that studied use and procurement of bomb-finding dogs had concerns not only about the sources of dogs but also about an opaque buying process with high failure rates, intimidating procurement processes, and inconsistent use of research on dog training.

The hearing was for two House entities: the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs and the Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Protective Security.

Breeders also told the AKC team they were willing to sell or donate high-quality puppies. But they tend to sell their puppies within their first three months, whereas government agencies offer similar prices but want the dogs at 9-12 months old.

"The older age at which the government wants a puppy is problematic for breeders," Goffe said. "Many kennels do not have facilities to maintain quantities of puppies for an additional six months or longer, especially with no guarantee of purchase at a later date."

Any dogs rejected for detection work would be past the ideal age for placement in pet homes or homes looking for hunting or field trial dogs.

A potential solution

A year ago, Dr. Otto and four co-authors published an article in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in which they proposed creating the Detector Dog Center of Excellence, a nonprofit cooperative led by academics in canine science and guided by others involved with working dogs. Those running the organization could oversee how dogs are bred and raised, would have the approvals for and familiarity with agency appropriations processes to allow them to act as middlemen between agencies and breeders, and could help breeders store genetic material.

"As a data collection and genetic evaluation center, the DDCoE will lead research to define quantitative traits involved in odor detection, to understand how these traits develop, and methods to optimize training of dogs endowed with enhanced odor detection ability," the article states.

Socks sniffing the hood of a car
Socks, a Yellow Labrador Retriever that now works as a bomb detection dog in Pennsylvania, received training and mothered two litters at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. The center and the American Kennel Club are leading projects to make it easier for U.S. dog breeders to sell to federal agencies and police departments, although through separate models. (Photo by Annemarie DeAngelo/Penn Vet)

Success would require decades of work, so the cooperative needs to be able to survive when federal funding is scarce, the article states. Dr. Otto said a cooperative focused on phenotype and performance could change dogs in much the same way the U.S. dairy industry has changed cattle to improve their performance.

"We need to be able to characterize those phenotypes, and that tool to assess them is really critical," she said. "And so we're working on a lot of ideas. How do we measure it? How is it reproducible?"

The DDCoE also can ensure that dogs are trained to work on slippery floors and in areas with loud noises, small children, and unfamiliar clothing, she said.

Penn Vet runs a working dog research and training facility, with a breeding program intended to help produce the next generation of detection dogs, university information states. Program leaders also plan to host a working dog conference in April 2020.

Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine also has a Canine Performance Sciences program with a breeding program focused on improving detection dogs. The program uses the latest theriogenology practices to improve selection and runs dogs through an 11-month training and socialization program before selling them to vendors, university information states. Continuous evaluations help show which jobs are most likely to be the best fit for the dogs.

Scott Thomas, who ran the TSA's breeding dog program from its inception in 2002 to its shutdown in 2012, co-authored the article with Dr. Otto and works with the AKC on its detection dog program. He said his group in the TSA successfully trained 600 dogs before the DHS shuttered a "gold mine" to save money.

In recent years, the quality of imported dogs has slipped, he said. Some vendors lie about ages and pedigrees, and some have low health standards that raise welfare concerns. Buyers hope to fix problems in training.

Federal agencies pay $4,000-$8,000 each for dogs bought in the U.S., including untrained dogs, according to figures from trainers and the AKC. Thomas thinks the accounting used on procurement trips has left out expenses and given a false impression that dogs in Europe are sold at comparable prices or cheaper.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, signed in December 2017, directed the Department of Defense to examine the full costs of buying dogs, including personnel travel and shipping, rather than just the price tag per animal. The analysis also will include the washout rate.

The appropriations bill also resulted in formation of a working group of 10 experts on detection dogs that included Dr. Otto and representatives from the TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, Auburn University, Johns Hopkins University, law enforcement, and dog vendors. The group wrote a recommendation that was still working its way through various agencies on its way to Congress—and was unpublished at press time—to form a national breeding cooperative. Dr. Otto hopes lawmakers will approve.

The cooperative's model is still developing, but Dr. Otto said it should have a central clearinghouse that sells to agencies that would be the best fit for the dogs.

"There has to be a center of excellence in order to make it run because, when you've got such a distributed model, there has to be a main hub that has oversight and drives the research and collects the data and makes sure everything is going along according to plan," she said.

Federal detection dogs would be the cooperative's priority, followed by dogs with multiple jobs, such as a police dog trained to detect narcotics and pursue fleeing people.

Dr. Battaglia said the cooperative model looks good on paper, but its application would require dealing with added oversight, regulations, and tax issues, in addition to the complexities of buying and reselling dogs. He is on the federal committee that recommended the cooperative, but he said the AKC favors instead the model the organization is developing in a pilot program, through which dog owners work with experts, test their dogs as they grow, and work to connect them to government buyers.

Sellers frustrated

Kenneth D. Licklider is founder and owner of Vohne Liche Kennels, an Indiana-based company that trains dogs for federal and local police agencies. It also resells untrained dogs that have potential as working dogs. He said ample dogs are available—he bought 45 in Europe most recently—but the problem lies in certain agencies' selection processes.

TSA buyers accept about one-third of the dogs he submits. He blames unforgiving and arbitrary tests that disqualify young dogs, some of which are recovering from travel to Lackland Air Force Base.

"We have the same goals, but it's adversarial when they come," he said.

Licklider said he can sell the rejected dogs within a week, such as a few bomb detection dogs he just sold to agencies in Senegal and Mauritania.

Ken Pavlick, co-owner and head trainer of Pacific Coast K9 in Custer, Washington, agreed with Licklider on testing, although he said demand for detection dogs is exceeding supply as their use has expanded over the past five to seven years. He said federal agencies use rigid testing methods to reject dogs that still become successful elsewhere. Some government buyers have rejected his dogs because they wouldn't play with a Kong toy or wouldn't play tug of war, he said.

Thomas wants to see more transparency in the government assessment process and assurances the testers are qualified to evaluate working dogs. Tests should be consistent, repeatable, and validated by science, rather than the opinion of someone who, for example, dismisses a dog's potential because the dog was confused when it saw a blue tarp for the first time.

Chris Shelton at the TSA's Canine Training Center acknowledged that vendors complain when TSA evaluators reject their dogs, but he said the mission is too important to lower standards. He said the agency wants to buy dogs from those domestic vendors and is trying to help people understand the agency's standards and needs.

TSA officials accept 30%-40% of the dogs they examine, Shelton said. The dogs need to be happy and healthy, with a mix of social skills and innate drive. Many are rejected over medical problems.

Trial run

The TSA has a full supply of dogs now, Shelton said, but the agency sees competition over a limited supply. A domestic breeding program could give stability.

Licklider is skeptical whether a domestic breeding program will succeed, citing the cost of raising dogs and uncertainty of success. Pavlick also questioned how the dogs could be raised to pass agency tests and what breeders could do with those that fail.

Goffe acknowledges not all the dogs raised as working dogs will make the cut for federal work. Some may become service dogs or pets.

Dr. Otto said the demand for working dogs comes with great opportunities to help dogs and protect people.

"I just really believe our dogs need to be made in the U.S.A. I think we've got the ability and we've got the skills and we've got all the resources to do it and to do it well—in the best interest of the country but also in the best interest of the dogs," she said.

Certification available for working dog care

Veterinarians who treat working dogs or canine athletes can get advanced education on their care.

The Penn Vet Working Dog Center has an 80-credit-hour Working Dog Practitioner Program that trains veterinarians on how to address the needs of dogs with high physical demands and risk of injury or exposure to hazardous substances.

The program consists of a combination of online and in-person instruction, including a three-day event held at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. Details are available at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center website.


Related JAVMA content:

Training a new generation of detection dogs (Nov. 1, 2012)