If within the past few years you received a package, roamed a shopping mall, boarded a plane, train, ferry or cruise ship, went to a major sporting event, ran a marathon, attended a concert, gambled at a casino or visited a tourist attraction, chances are a dog made sure it was safe for you to do so.
With terrorists increasingly attacking so-called soft targets, the demand for detection dogs that can sweep large areas for explosives has soared. So have prices, which can exceed $25,000 for a single dog. Security experts warn that the supply of these dogs is dwindling worldwide and that the United States is especially vulnerable because it relies primarily on brokers who source dogs from Eastern Europe.
Technological alternatives have so far proven inadequate. Despite decades of trying, researchers have yet to develop a machine as exquisitely sensitive and discerning as a dog’s nose. Nor can a robot rove with the agility and ease of a dog.
Spend time at the Transportation Security Administration’s sprawling National Canine Training Center here at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and you’ll be struck by the intensity and intelligence of the four-legged students. Rushing around mock airport terminals and train cars, the dogs abruptly sit, eerily still, when they pick up a whiff of explosives planted on one of the actors pretending to be passengers or secreted in an abandoned suitcase. And all the dogs want in return is a tennis ball or squeaky toy.
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