Man's Best Terror Deterrent Still Somewhat-Reliable Dog

"A lot of security is to tell people, 'Hey, we're here,' " says Capitol Police K-9 Technician Ronald E. Potter Jr., who patrols with his German shepherd, Sandokan. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

Deep underneath downtown Washington on a recent morning, law enforcement officers from four agencies were "sweeping" Metro stations, moving from trash cans and orange cones to Farecard machines and trains, looking for dynamite, C4, triacetone triperoxide and other explosives. They were using what is believed to be the most powerful defense against the type of terrorist attacks that killed 56 people last month in London: dogs.

The ability of dogs to detect 19,000 types of explosives makes them more effective at catching potential suicide bombers than security cameras or random passenger searches, officials said. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday visited a Virginia training facility for police dogs, calling them a "state-of-the-art anti-terrorist tool."

Still, terrorism experts and the police officers who work with the dogs caution that the canine units can offer, at best, spotty protection on mass transit.

Local and federal agencies have too few dogs to cover the nation's transit systems, which carry 14 million people daily. Many of the dogs can work for only about a half-hour before they need a break. And their ability to find explosives depends on the quantity and proximity of the material, the strength of the odor, the temperature and direction of the wind.

Private companies, laboratories and government research centers are working to develop technologies to replace or help the dogs. The Defense Department is conducting experiments with rats, wasps, honeybees and yeast to find other ways to detect explosives. Marines in Iraq have experimented with a $28,000 hand-held device called Fido that some of them believe can find explosives as well as a trained dog.

For now, though, the burden falls on such dogs as Andy, an energetic black Labrador retriever who works for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He and his canine colleagues from ATF flunked out of guide-dog school because they were too keyed up to stay by a blind person's side. Their curiosity and mobility, however, make them excellent bomb-sniffers and have put them on the front lines of the nation's fight against domestic terrorism.

Andy "is really a giant nose with four legs," said Jim Cavanaugh, the ATF special agent in charge of the Washington field office. "We haven't found anything better."

But Washington's Metro Transit Police force, which trains its own dogs, has only 10 for its 86 stations. D.C. police have 10 dogs for explosives detection; the U.S. Capitol Police have 43, some helping in the subway but most used to search Capitol grounds. There are 100 ATF-trained dogs for the entire country.

Capitol Police K-9 Technician Ronald E. Potter Jr. said that a large part of the job is to walk the stations as a deterrent.

"A lot of security is to tell people, 'Hey, we're here,' " said Potter, who patrols with his German shepherd, Sandokan. "Hopefully, they feel a little safer seeing us down here."

Transit Police canine handler Mike Pecoraro said that "checking every backpack at every station, that's impossible. We can't be every place at every time. We are just one tool in the arsenal of tools against terrorism."

Washington area police officials will not say how often or where the dogs sweep the stations or trains. But the handlers said they have been working longer hours since the London bombings.

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