How Bomb-sniffing Dogs Work

By: Susan L. Nasr

Top Dogs

The TSA and many other agencies mostly use these breeds for bomb-sniffing, according to Greg Soule with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA): German shepherd; a Belgian shepherd called a Malinois; Vizsla, also known as a Hungarian pointer; and Labrador retriever.

These four breeds represent more than just good noses. The TSA prizes them because they smell well; they're calm in crowds and around strangers, and they like to play, says Soule. Playing is important because dogs understand their work as play; it's a daily game of find-the-explosive.


None of these qualities is dispensable, explains Soule. TSA will turn down the finest smeller if it is aggressive because the public won't tolerate a frightening or dangerous dog.

We've made it to the workday. Clearly, dogs don't work like we do, in an eight-hour slog punctuated with some coffee breaks. Dogs lose concentration more quickly. Instead, the TSA limits dogs to shorter shifts and relies on handlers to recognize when their dog needs a break, says Soule. Because the canine workers may not find explosives every day (thankfully), they practice finding hidden explosives daily on the job, so they don't forget the important smells, say both Soule and Proctor.

If you've ever watched a bomb dog in the airport, you may have noticed that it works in silence, with neither a word nor a woof exchanged between dog and handler. So how does either know what's going on? Thanks to those mock terminals and planes at the TSA training facility, being in the airport is enough to tell the dog it's time to search for explosives. Beyond that, much communication happens through the leash. When the dog finds a scent, it leads the handler toward the source. The universal sit signal tells the handler about a find.

At the end of the day, TSA dogs go home with their handlers to sleep. The handler cares for the dog 24 hours a day. These two spend more time together than with almost anyone else. Military dogs go home to kennels.

If the dog gets very sick or ages out of its drive to play, it's time to retire. Retirement age varies, but military dogs retire at age 8 or 9 [source: Air Force].

We hope you've sent a virtual hug to the dogs that risk paw and tail to protect you, all for a toy or treat. Nose around the links below to gain more love for dogs.

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More Great Links


  • Myers, Lawrence, associate professor of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. Personal interview. June 7, 2011.
  • Proctor, Gerry, spokesperson for training missions at Lackland Air Force Base. Personal interviews. June 9, 2011 and June 13, 2011.
  • Ramirez, Anthony. "Golden Noses; Bomb Sniffers Are in Demand, Earning Far More Than Treats." The New York Times. Aug. 12, 2004. (June 8, 2011)
  • Soule, Greg, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration. Personal interview. June 7, 2011.
  • The New York Times. "Two Dogs Pass Bomb-Finding Test Successfully." The New York Times. March 8, 1972.
  • Transportation Security Administration. "TSA's National Explosives Detection Canine Team." (June 8, 2011)
  • U.S. Air Force. "341st TRS (Military Working Dogs)." May 27, 2011. (June 8, 2011)
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP). "Detector Dogs: CPB's 'Secret Weapons." Dec. 17, 2008. (June 8, 2011)
  • Witkin, Richard. "Bomb Found on Jet Here After $2-Million Demand." The New York Times. March 8, 1972.