Valley School Trains Dogs for War Against Terrorism

Times Staff Writer

As Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, Yuval Rotem receives up to 200 e-mail messages a day, many with offbeat, sometimes absurd suggestions on how Israel can better protect its citizens against attacks.

But not all the messages are quickly deleted.

Last spring, shortly after the Passover suicide bombing in the Israeli coastal town of Netanya that killed 21 people, Rotem received an intriguing message from Glen Yago. The director of capital studies at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Yago proposed starting a local bomb detection school for dogs, which could then send the trained animals to Israel to thwart terrorist attacks.

The military, police and private security firms in Israel already deploy about 200 bomb-sniffing dogs, but, according to Yago, that is nowhere near enough to cover thousands of potential targets.

So Yago proposed the bomb school, to be funded primarily with private donations. After checking with the Foreign Ministry in Israel, Rotem gave Yago the thumbs up.

Five months later, the Israeli Defense Forces have an extra 17 highly trained canines to sniff out bombs. And more are on the way.

Trained in a secret location in the San Fernando Valley, the dogs are the first offerings of Pups for Peace, a nonprofit organization founded by Yago that hopes to eventually send 1,000 dogs to Israel.

Many of the canines -- Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and Belgium shepherds known as Malinois -- are purchased for several thousand dollars each from noted breeders in Europe. The dogs then undergo about two months of extensive training at their Southern California base before they graduate and are shipped to the Middle East.

At the Valley training center, every possible bombing scenario is simulated, using buses, cars, buildings and people.

The dogs are trained to detect a wide range of weapons, from crude homemade devices equipped with nails to sophisticated bombs packed with powerful explosives such as C4.

It was the explosion at the Park Hotel in Netanya that spurred Yago to action. For Yago, a Jew, it was the last straw. He had to do something to help stop the killings.

At a family dinner, his son, who lives in New York City, told him about the large police dog presence in Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks. That gave him his idea.

"Maybe if there were more trained bomb-detection dogs in Israel, they could help prevent the carnage suicide bombers so often brought," Yago said last week in a telephone interview from the Tel Aviv Sheraton Hotel. "I inquired and found there was a real shortage of dogs."

Soon, Yago was researching on the Internet. A name kept popping up -- Mike Herstik, one of the premier trainers of bomb-detection dogs in the U.S.

"Out of the blue I get this call from this guy, Glen Yago, asking me if I would be interested in training dogs that would be sent to Israel," said Herstik, 46. "Then he wanted to know if we could train 1,000 dogs in a month. Of course, that's impossible."

Still, Herstik and Yago quickly teamed up and formed Pups for Peace. Within two months, there were 60 dogs enrolled in the program, some purchased, some donated, others rescued from shelters.

Dogs have always been a part of Herstik's life.

"I was the kid on the block who had a dog with him wherever he went," said Herstik, the son of Auschwitz survivors who was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in the Valley. "It was just natural my life went that way professionally."

As a teenager, Herstik entered dogs in obedience and tracking competitions. He made a living training dogs as an adult. Then, after the Alfred E. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed in a bombing attack in 1995, Herstik focused his attention on explosives detection.

"There was a tremendous shortage of dogs, and given the situation in the world, I knew there was going to be a great need for them," he said.

He immersed himself in study. He picked the brains of every dog trainer he could find, contacted law enforcement agencies and interviewed bomb technicians. In 1998, he obtained an operating license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The lead detective of the Los Angeles Police Department's bomb squad said he only buys Herstik-trained canines.

"Mike has the best dogs," said Det. Joe Pau, who recently took possession of one Labrador and has an order for three more at about $10,000 each. "He does things with dogs that make them head and shoulders over anyone else's."

When Herstik's dogs detect something suspicious, they sit and stare at the probable location. Other trained dogs merely sit down once they sense something, according to Pau.

"Say a Mike dog senses explosives in the top drawer of a desk, he will stare, not just at the desk, but at that top drawer," said Pau, who has been in the bomb squad for 20 years. "When you get a dog like that, it eliminates a lot of work and saves a lot of time."

Last summer, one of Herstik's dogs saved Pau some valuable man hours.

On July 3, Burbank police in an alley spotted a suspicious car with a man sleeping inside, and notified the LAPD's bomb squad.

Earlier that evening, a man had been throwing pipe bombs near Rodeo Road.

A dog sniffed out bomb material stashed in a rear taillight and a canister of powder in the car.

"I called Mike and told him it was the first time in 10 years we got a find from a dog," Pau said.

Herstik thrives on calls like that one.

"It makes me feel good when I hear my dogs have made their finds," he said. "When I get a call that starts with, 'Guess what your dog did,' that's the best feeling in the world, that your dog actually busted a bomber. I haven't got that call from Israel yet, but I sure hope to get a bunch like that."

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