|“IS THAT A BANANA IN YOU POCKET?”
The Sniffer Dogs of Homeland Security
By Emily Yoffe
From What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner
Because I live in Washington, D.C., I sometimes hear F-16 fighter jets patrolling the sky at night – my husband and I think of the pilots as The Little Prince. During the anthrax scare, my mail carrier handed me the mail wearing rubber gloves, which I received with my ungloved hands. I now think of suicide bomber barricades ringing federal buildings as an architectural detail. But the first time I really worried about my safety was when I discovered beagles are employed by the Department of Homeland Security.
If you’ve ever returned from an international flight, you may have encountered one of these long-eared civil servants – there are 70 such teams patrolling 21 international airports. The Beagle Brigade is with the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department. A beagle and a human officer work as a team to prevent contaminated produce or meat from entering the country. Though most violators are travelers who have forgotten they still have an apple in their carry-on, these day the Department is also looking out for the possibility of agricultural terrorism – the deliberate introduction of a devastating microbe or pest.
I tried to imagine Sasha patrolling the airport. All I could conjure up was her accidentally knocking over a toddler in order to pull a Twizzler out of the child’s mouth. I got a chance to observe the Brigade in action when I was cleared to spend part of an afternoon at Dulles airport following a team. Just past the luggage carousel for international flights, I met Canine Enforcement Officer Jennifer Jones and her dog, Paisley.
We sat and talked in Jennifer’s small office, decorated with Snoopy stuffed animals, beagle calendars, and trading cards with pictures of Beagle Brigade dogs and their vital statistics. Paisley, a slender two-year-old with intense, dark-rimmed eyes, rested in her crate. She was a failed pet who was turned into the pound, and met the requirements of the Beagle Brigade. “We are looking for food drive. High energy. A dog that’s healthy and not afraid of anything,” Jennifer said.
Paisley was Jennifer’s second dog, they’d only been together six months. Her previous dog, Quincy, retired after six years on the job and now lives with Jennifer. It is standard for officers to adopt their dogs. During their working life the dogs are kept in a kennel at night. In order to keep the dogs sharp, they aren’t allowed to indulge in the life of a pet. Like many retirees, Quincy was having some difficulty making the transition to a life of leisure. “He’s driving me nuts,” Jennifer said with a sigh. “When he joined the Beagle Brigade he’d been found on the streets and was in a shelter. I don’t think he’s ever been in a home. He doesn’t know the coffee table isn’t a springboard.”
A Beagle Brigade officer gets three months of training, and a beagle about two months at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Orlando, Florida, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There the dogs learn to recognize five basic foods we do not want coming into the U.S: apple, citrus, mango, beef, and pork. In Orlando, they are trained to sit when they detect the odors, and are rewarded with a food treat. Once they realize what the training is about, “You can almost see the light bulb go on,” said Jennifer.
The dogs are also evaluated for their ability to negotiate the chaos of an airline terminal. “I’ve had dogs that wouldn’t come out of the office,” said Jennifer. “Others run and climb on the carousel with their tails wagging, like they’ve never had more fun.”
One theme that emerged from Jennifer’s stories is that many people become unhinged over their fruit and sausages. Jennifer once was attacked with an apple. Her dog, Quincy, alerted on the woman’s purse and when Jennifer asked to see what was inside, the woman pulled out an apple, started screaming and hit Jennifer in the face with it. “She was arrested for assaulting a federal officer,” said Jennifer. “She pled guilty and spent five nights in jail, then went home to Norway.” A modern version, with beagle instead of serpent, of punishment for having the forbidden fruit.
Quincy once alerted on a woman’s suitcase, but the woman assured Jennifer she had none of the verboten food items. Jennifer had the bag put through x-ray and found nothing. But every time she brought Quincy back to the suitcase he sniffed and sat. Finally, after feeling around, Jennifer found the contraband: a couple of pounds of sausage sewn into the lining. “The lady said, ‘I don’t know how it got there,’” Jennifer recalled with a snort.
Many travelers use that excuse. Once, her dog alerted on an old man’s bag – he had mangoes. He claimed it wasn’t his fault. “My mother packed this bag,” he said. Jennifer demanded another look at his passport. “He was 87 years-old!” she said.
It was 3:00 p.m. and a flight from Austria was coming in. “Austrian Air tends to have a lot of sausage,” Jennifer said as she released Paisley from her crate. We stepped from Jennifer’s office into the terminal and I was immediately overwhelmed: the cacophony of languages; the barrage of announcements; carts, wheelchairs, and strollers pushing past; the haggard, lost, exhausted travelers. Paisley bounced along, giving a quick sniff to each bag Jennifer pointed to. Most people ignored them. Occasionally Paisley sniffed the foot of a toddler in a stroller. Sometimes a traveler bent down to pat her.
Paisley made a line for a white plastic bag carried by a man waiting for his luggage. She sniffed and sat. Jennifer asked him if he had any fruit and he opened the bag and pulled out a large orange. Jennifer marked his customs declaration form, so the gate officer would confiscate the fruit. As she spoke to the man, Paisley, still seated, stared at Jennifer. You could read her mind. “Jennifer, I found an orange. Where’s my treat?” When Jennifer finished with the man, she dropped a couple of dog food pellets into Paisley’s mouth. Another man, watching the encounter remarked, “That’s the first time I’ve seen a beagle do anything but hunt for rabbits.”
Paisley stopped at a young woman’s carry-on. Jennifer asked her to open the bag; inside was an orange and banana. Bananas are banned, too. That reminded Jennifer of the time Quincy jumped up on the backpack of a young man heading toward the exit, and hung on by his front paws. The man was bananas for bananas; he had two bunches in the pack.
After 90 minutes, I was ready to go. I was having flashbacks to too many trips spent looking for lost luggage or waiting for a cancelled flight to be rescheduled. As I was leaving, Jennifer pointed out another officer patrolling the area with a black Labrador. They were from another arm of Homeland Security, the Canine Enforcement Program, which has dogs searching for currency, drugs, and explosives.
I was intrigued by the difference between training a beagle to find bratwust and a Labrador to find LSD, so I got permission from the Department to visit their Canine Enforcement and Training Center in the Blue Ridge mountains.
The Center is on 250 bucolic acres. As I sat in the lobby waiting for the head of the Canine Enforcement Program, Lee Titus, to give me a tour, a five month-old Labrador puppy, Quota, dozed next to me in his crate. Titus, a broad-shouldered man in a blue uniform, has spent his entire law enforcement career wrapped up with dogs. There is a photo of him at age 19, when he was with the Air Force security police in Okinawa, kneeling next to a German shepherd guard dog.
There are usually about 120 dogs, mostly Labradors and golden retrievers, in various stages of training at the center. Dogs’ duties are strictly segregated – a currency dog is never exposed to drugs or explosives, for example. Law enforcement doesn’t want the accused to be able to make the claim the dog was confused by competing odors.
Titus grabbed a big bag of finely shredded dollars, a training aid for currency detector dogs. He said the dogs are taught to respond only to a certain threshold of money, to avoid the disaster of having the dogs alerting to the wallets of every traveler. “When a narcotics dog hits on a suitcase it’s narcotics,” said Titus. “When an explosive dog hits, you know what you do?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Run!” he said, showing off a little homeland security humor. He said the handlers actually notify explosives experts.
He grabbed a photograph of his late dog, Kaluha, a golden retriever, after she made an alert on a crate with a false bottom that contained $570,000. Kahlua is seated by the money, looking content with a rolled up white towel in her mouth. “That’s her reward,” Titus explained. He told about another dog of his, Kirby, who was asked to take a look at a 727 Eastern Airlines jet that had arrived from Cali, Colombia. That daily flight was the bread and butter plane for both drug smugglers and narcotics agents. But after a thorough search, the human inspector had turned up nothing. Within minutes, Kirby was in the airplane restroom indicating the slot in the wall for razor disposal. The inspectors unscrewed the panel and pulled out eight bricks of cocaine.
“Officially Kirby got a rolled towel,” said Titus. “Unoffically, I gave him two cheeseburgers.”
“What’s with the towel?” I asked.
“The rolled towel is their paycheck,” said Titus. “Their meaning in life is to play with that towel. We find dogs that want to do nothing but play with that towel.”
To demonstrate he took me to one of their training buildings. Inside was a mail sorting belt from a post office. A few minutes after we arrived a dog breeder from South Carolina showed up with an 18-month-old German shepherd he hoped to sell to the government for about $3,500. “We’re looking to see how bad he wants that towel,” said Titus.
We watched as an officer threw a towel up the sorting belt. The dog instantly ran up the metal ramp and captured it. Then the officer took the towel and put it under a heavy metal doormat. The dog wrestled it free. The officer turned on the sorting belt, to see if the noise and movement scared the dog. He tossed the towel on it, and without hesitation, the dog ran up the moving belt and grabbed the towel in his mouth. It all took less than a minute.
“That dog is sold,” said Titus.
He showed me a piece of equipment they use to train dogs to detect odors. It looked like a row of bleachers that instead of seats had cans set in holes. Inside the cans the trainers place the substance the dog is being trained to identify, be it heroin or explosives. Hidden underneath the bleacher is an officer, flat on his or her back, on one of those roller carts used to inspect automobile undercarriages. If the dog sits when it detects an odor, the officer hidden under the bleacher is given a signal and shoots a rolled white towel through the hole.
I thought of how wonderful the world would be if people responded this way to a rolled white towel.
Me (to husband at the end of the day): I’m too tired to make dinner, it’s your turn.
Husband: Hey, I’m exhausted.
Me (using seductive voice): If you cook tonight, you’ll get something you’ve been wanting for days.
Husband: I thought you were tired.
Me: I’m not too tired to roll up a white towel for you, baby.
Husband: Let me in that kitchen!
My reverie was interrupted when Titus indicated we should move to another building. There he showed me his latest training device, a long wooden box that looked like a coffin for a boa constrictor. Since 9/11 the agency’s focus had shifted somewhat from narcotics to explosives. Titus had just come into possession of a surface to air missile, the kind of shoulder-fired device that can bring down an airplane. Titus was going to nail the missile into the box, put it in a warehouse piled with other goods, and see if one of his new officer and dog teams could identify it. A surface to air missile seemed a long way from sausage. It was a reminder of the grim reality of our world.
I asked Titus if he had dogs of his own. “I have a sheltie that sheds like crazy, and a five year-old black Lab who is the most disobedient dog in the world. He’s always running away.”
“Can’t you train him with a towel?” I asked.
“His attitude is, ‘I’m supposed to get that? I don’t think so!’”
There was no better mood lifter than a professional dog trainer with a misbehaving dog.
Emily Yoffe is one of our favorite writers. She is a journalist, a regular contributor to Slate magazine and the NPR radio show Day to Day.
She has regular features on Slate called "Human Guinea Pig", where she takes reader suggestions for strange activities or hobbies to try, and an advice column called "Dear Prudence".