Archives For Detector Dogs

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In 2010, after spending six years and $19 billion on research to develop better bomb detecting technology, Pentagon officials admitted that dogs’ noses were still superior to their most sophisticated technology. Now scientists say the reason for this might lie simply in the way they sniff.

In her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, an assistant of psychology at Barnard College, offers an analogy to show just how powerful a dog’s sense of smell is: while we might be able to tell if a teaspoon of sugar has been added to our coffee, place the same amount in a million gallons of water (roughly the equivalent of two Olympic-sized pools) and a dog would most likely be able to detect it.

This ability to single out and pick up even the faintest of odors is what makes dogs invaluable as bomb detectors. They can detect trace explosives in crowded settings such as airports and public transit areas, as well as odorless chemicals like TNT.

However training pooches to be effective bomb detectors is expensive and time-intensive. While all dogs have a superior sense of smell, not every breed is trainable. Hence the on-going quest to develop an e-nose that can equip bomb detectors with the canal physiology of dogs.

In the latest development in this arena, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory and the US Food and Drug Administration have found that the way a dog sniffs could shed light on how to improve trace detection capabilities.

While we don’t differentiate between breathing and smelling, a dog, with its far more complex nasal system, treats them as two separate functions. According to Matt Staymates, a mechanical engineer at NIST, apart from having a complex olfactory system, the key to what makes dogs so good at sniffing out bombs is, well, in its sniff. This is a two part-process and key to this is what happens when it exhales.

Breathing and smelling are treated as two separate functions in a dog’s nose. When it inhales, the air is channeled into two different paths and when it exhales, the air exits through the sides of its nose so that the exiting air doesn’t interfere with its ability to smell. As counterintuitive as it might sound, when it exhales, the outgoing air jets “entrain—or draw in—vapor-laden air toward the nostrils. During inhalation, the entrained air is pulled into each nostril.”

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Using a 3D model of a Labrador retriever’s (one of the most commonly used breeds in bomb detection) nose to mimic how dogs sniff, and together with the help of schlieren imaging – a technique used for imaging the flow of air around objects – and high-speed video, Staymates and his team were able to confirm the above conjecture.

In their first set of experiments, they found that compared with trace-detection devices that rely on continuous suction, the artificial dog nose was four times better 10 cm (3.9 inches) away from the vapor source and 18 times better at a stand-off distance of 20 cm (7.9 inches).

When they integrated it with a commercially available vapor detector, the switch, which enabled it to sniff like a dog rather than inhale in its standard 10-second intervals, improved its ability to detect odors by a factor of 16 at a stand-off distance of 4 cm (1.6 inches).

This research team is not the first to study how the canine sniffing abilities can be used to develop a better bomb detector. In 1997, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched the Dog’s Nose program for this purpose. One of the technologies to emerge from it was a chemical explosives detector called Fido, which was modelled after the canine nasal physiology.

However while there have been various attempts to develop a canine e-nose over the years, the results, while promising, have not yet resulted in a breakthrough for the industry. Reliability as well as the ability to detect things at a distance remain a challenge and while this latest study confirms yet again the dog’s remarkable olfactory prowess, it is “just a piece of the puzzle,” as Staymates notes. “There’s lots more to be learned and to emulate as we work to improve the sensitivity, accuracy and speed of trace-detection technology.” Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology NIST 

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The SARS Customs Detector Dog Unit (DDU) recently deployed two trained detector dog handlers and dogs on foreign soil in Maputo, Mozambique. This forms part of a Customs co-operation agreement between the governments of South Africa and Mozambique.

The capacity-building programme provides for the training of at least eight detector dog handlers and dogs for Mozambique in over a period of 14 weeks followed by a ‘Train-the-Trainer’ programme for purposes of sustainability.

The deployment of SARS Detector Dog Handlers and dogs trained to interdict endangered species and narcotics in Maputo will promote and strengthen a  cross-border intergovernmental approach in the prevention and detection of smuggling of illicit, illegal goods or substances via ports of entry between Mozambique and South Africa.

The programme is designed to capacitate Mozambique Customs in the establishment of its own canine unit that will further enhance its current non-intrusive scanning enforcement capability at ports of entry and exit. Source and pictures: SARS

Detector Dog Rajax demonstrates his cash-sniffing abilities during training at a NZ Customs facility

Detector Dog Rajax demonstrates his cash-sniffing abilities during training at a NZ Customs facility

Customs Minister Nicky Wagner today welcomed a new partnership between New Zealand, Hong Kong and Chinese Customs to develop cash detector dog capabilities in the region.

Officials from Hong Kong Customs and the General Administration of China Customs’ Anti-Smuggling Bureau have been in Auckland to learn how drug dogs are trained to detect cash, so they can progress similar programmes in their own Customs administrations.

“It’s fantastic we’re able to assist Hong Kong and China to build this special capability, as detecting undeclared or hidden cash is an increasing priority for many Customs authorities as evidence shows following the money trail can lead to cracking serious organised crime such as drug smuggling.

“Having Hong Kong and China Customs detector dogs sniff both drugs and cash will disrupt drug smuggling and money laundering by transnational syndicates, with flow-on benefits for us in New Zealand,” Ms Wagner says

New Zealand shares formal agreements and a close customs-customs operational relationships with both Hong Kong and China, with the agencies working together to target the illicit drug trade through cross-border efforts.

Officials spent a week getting an overview from Customs’ Source: NZ Government (contributed by M Reddy)

On a subject close to my heart. The National Detector Dog Unit of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) is getting a boost with more than 70 new dogs and handlers being trained to make up a number of new dog units around the country. Apart from filling a couple of current vacancies, the new recruits will form part of Detector Dog Units in Port Elizabeth, Zeerust, Mahamba, Vioolsdrift, Nakop, Maseru Bridge and an expanded Mpumalanga unit. All the additional units are expected to become operational in the first quarter of 2013.

“By next year, most of the major land, sea and air ports should have their own detector dog units (DDU),” said the senior manager of the DDU, Hugo Taljaard. “The ultimate aim is to have dog units at every port, with a total of 500 new handlers and dogs needed. However, this is a long-term (four-year) project, aimed at enhancing our non-intrusive capabilities at ports of entry to prevent cross-border smuggling.”

The SARS Detector Dog Unit has also been asked recently to assist with training in Namibia and Angola, following the assistance we gave the Mauritius Revenue Authority (MRA) to establish a Detector Dog capability. The DDU continues to see major successes countrywide, with a recent copper bust in the news last weekend.

Detector dog Umaga, an 18-month old German Shepherd, sniffed out 84kg of copper at the Beit Bridge border post during his first operation. Umaga recently completed his training as a copper sniffer dog. The copper was concealed in luggage in a trailer entering South Africa. Umaga is the second sniffer dog to be trained to sniff out copper. Milo, a five-year-old Labrador, has also already nosed out his first contraband copper. There has been an increase in the smuggling of copper wire across the border into South Africa, since copper has a much higher value here than in the other member states of the Southern African Development Community. The increase has meant that Customs has had to beef up its ability to detect contraband copper. The wire is usually concealed in compartments under trucks.

The Detector Dog Unit was the first in the world to train “dual application dogs”, Hugo explained. So instead of being trained or “imprinted” to detect only one scent, they are able to detect a combination of scents, e.g. narcotics and currency, tobacco and endangered species. Both Milo and Umaga are dual dogs and they can detect narcotics/tobacco and copper wire. The explosives detector dogs are the only dogs not dual trained due to the safety risk.

The dogs are an integral part of our Customs workforce and are seen as officers in their own right. They are therefore looked after with the utmost care and attention and are even provided with special reflector jackets, cooler jackets for the heat and dog shoes made to protect their feet from hot surfaces. Source: SARS Communications Division