News & Resources

News

A Cold Wet Nose for Trouble

A look at the bomb-dog business

March 31, 2005

March 31st, 2005

By Bruce Balestier

Before either pitcher Pedro Martinez or centerfielder Carlos Beltran steps onto the field at Shea Stadium next month, the Mets will let the dogs out–the bomb-sniffing ones.

Handler-trainers such as Victor Solis from Manhattan-based T&M Protection Resources are becoming familiar faces around the locker rooms, along with their canine partners, which include a Belgian Malinois called Boomer and a yellow Lab named Amber.

“People and players recognize Victor and his dogs, and it provides our employees with some level of comfort that we are doing everything we can," said Rob Kasdon, vice president of security for Shea Stadium. “It's a message to our fans, players, umpires and coaches that we are doing everything to ensure their safety."

Safety became an urgent concern last Friday, when bomb threats delayed a Pacers-Pistons basketball game until dogs could help verify that the calls were hoaxes. The incident highlights post-Sept. 11 fears that terrorists' next U.S. targets will be crowded places such as malls and sports arenas.

As a result, the bomb-dog business has boomed.

...Besides the obvious places–government buildings and airports– Solis ...say[s] there is growing demand to search apartment buildings, public storage facilities and multilevel parking garages.

The industry's quick expansion also has bred operators dedicated more to finding money than bombs. Among them: Russell Lee Ebersole of Maryland, who was convicted in 2003 for defrauding the government of $700,000 after he provided untrained dogs to the IRS, the Federal Reserve and Federal Emergency Management Agency that failed to detect 50 pounds of dynamite in a covert test. The dogs, prosecutors said, “didn't so much as sneeze." Ebersole was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison.

The case sent ripples through the unregulated industry, which has several trade groups calling for a set of standards.

...At best, trust in dogs' reliability comes into question. Even so, experts say, while technology has produced devices that can use X-rays, radio waves and other means to find explosives, dogs from legitimate operations are still the most effective detectors. The reason for their edge: Canines have roughly 200 million receptor cells in their nasal cavities, nearly 40 times as many as humans. And though most explosive-detecting canines can work effectively for only six hours each day, from ages 1 1/2 to 6, they are more mobile and cheaper than machines, which can run as much as $1 million apiece.

One bomb-dog can cost up to $10,000. ...T&M relies on its own breeding program, at its Long Island City kennel, and has four Labrador retrievers, two Belgian Malinoises, one golden retriever and one German shepherd.

Unlike drug-sniffing dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs are taught to give subtle signs, such as sitting, staring and drooling. The narcotics sniffers can scratch or dig into a bag. But a bomb dog that shakes or bangs on a potentially explosive package wouldn't have a long career–not to mention the handlers, Solis said. Have his dogs ever found something? Solis declined to comment.

...At T&M, Solis is a retired NYPD Bomb Squad detective. His second career is a natural progression for him, having loved dogs since he was a kid.

The public likes the dogs, too, and at places like Shea Stadium there's more chance of them getting fat than finding a bomb. Amber, the T&M sniffer, is like a vacuum, Solis said, because as she works she'll pick up such remnants as popcorn, chicken bones or mozzarella sticks. “If you don't keep her head up off the ground, she'll eat anything."