The TSA is recruiting James Bond into the ranks. And he is a black Lab puppy named Dolan.
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches and demand grows for more explosive-detection dogs, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is studying ways to develop the perfect pooch for the job.
There are more than 800 TSA-certified explosives-detection teams of handlers and dogs at airports and mass transit systems. There were fewer than 200 teams when TSA took it over after 9/11. The TSA would like to add an additional 200 teams a year, but they have to have the right stuff.
Dolan seems to have what it takes: “He clearly shows intrepid Bond-like qualities,” says Scott Thomas, program manager of the Canine Breeding and Development Center at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. “He’s absolutely a bold and confident dog.”
That is not always the case, however. Turns out all the dogs love the task of sleuthing, which Thomas describes as a “big game of hide-and-seek,” but they are not all thrilled about other parts of the job.
“They all have good enough noses to smell the explosives,” Thomas says, “but can they continue to find the bomb when there’s gunfire, loud noises, and other scary things happening?”
And since findings in the past 10 years have suggested that dogs’ problem-solving skills resemble skills seen in young children, Thomas relies on the assistance of Sam Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin in the weeding out process.
“Some dogs get scared and they’re done for the day. Other dogs get scared and bounce back. That’s an enormously important trait to be able to identify as early as we can and learn how to shape dogs,” Gosling says.
Some animal scientists are skeptical of his ideas about shaping personality and cognitive skills in dogs, Gosling says. But he doesn’t worry about that.
“When I first came into this kind of work, people said my research was goofy and irresponsible,” he says. “I didn’t really know what kind of practical implications there would be, but now my research is in demand.
“It’s great to be able to do this and do something extremely important and helpful also.”