Dear Straight Dope:
How do bomb-sniffing dogs know what to sniff for? Do bombs have a distinct smell?
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
You can train some dogs to pick up the scent of just about anything. I had an Australian shepherd once who would find and retrieve rocks I threw into a dry streambed just by the smell my hand left on the rock. Some breeds are better at this than others. The DEA guys in airports prefer golden and Labrador retrievers to sniff luggage for drugs. Bomb sniffing dogs don’t come in contact with the public as much, so they can use more “aggressive appearing” breeds too, such as Belgium Malinois or Dutch Shepherds.
According to Mike Ferdinand at Interquest Detection Canines (www.interquestk9.com–I’ve got the logo tee shirt and ballcap on order), the British were the first to employ the talents of detection canines in WWI when they were trained to find land mines. (“Good dog! No, wait … don’t bring it TO ME!”). He says that studies have shown that the ability of a dog to sniff a scent is 1,000 times that of a human.
“Explosives detection canines” are scent-trained on the most common components of incendiary devices. These can include, but are not limited to: TNT (nitrates), PETN (plastique), RDX (cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, a high explosive compound often used by the military), high- and low-flash gunpowder, and several kinds of detonating cords, which contain explosive cores for initiating a series of charges.
They look for dogs with a constant retrieval drive and instinct. They’re trained to find a specific scent, and the reward for finding it is not a dog biscuit, but another retrieval game with a toy! Then they take away the toy and the dog goes back to searching for the scent, hoping to be rewarded with yet another retrieval game. The perfect career for an obsessive, neurotic Labrador . . . you’ve probably known dogs like this. A bloodhound might have the right nose for this job, but not the right personality. Plus they drool on your luggage.
I wanna know when they figure out how to detect the scent of ebola virus and smallpox carried in glass vials.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.