All in a dog’s day for bomb sniffers

Times Staff Writer

After a hard day’s work with the bomb detection unit at Los Angeles International Airport, Nero Fuller likes to go in the backyard, roll around in the grass and look up at the sky. His partner, Los Angeles Police Department Officer Patty Fuller, likes to watch him. “It’s therapeutic,” she says.

Fuller, a 26-year veteran with the force, and Nero, an 83-pound chestnut brown and black Belgian Malinois, are one of the seven teams in LAX’s K-9 bomb detection squad, affiliated with the Transportation Security Administration’s Explosives Detection Canine Team Program. The handlers (all members of the LAPD) and dogs (a variety of breeds) work out of a nondescript aluminum-sided building on the outskirts of LAX. From there, they respond to calls to sniff for explosives in mail carried on passenger aircraft and in suspicious-looking parcels throughout the airport.

Other agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service and the Department of Agriculture, use dogs at LAX to find contraband drugs, food and plants. K-9 handlers are happiest when their canine partners turn up nothing in the duct-taped box left in an airport bathroom.


“We train and train,” says Fuller, “and hope to God we never find anything.”

The Federal Aviation Administration started its canine explosives detection program in 1972, about the time a police dog named Brandy sniffed out a bomb before it was set to explode on a TWA aircraft that was heading to L.A. from New York. (Alerted to the threat, the plane had returned to JFK, and passengers were removed before Brandy went to work.) The program, now overseen by the TSA, has about 300 teams at airports around the country, double the number deployed before Sept. 11.

“The dogs are part of a whole layered deterrence system,” says Dave Kontny, coordinator of the TSA bomb-sniffing dog program, “but they do their job really well.” Speed, mobility and a high level of accuracy make them important contributors to airport security. They can sniff explosives in minuscule amounts, up to one part per trillion -- which is like being able to find the only black grain in the white sand on Long Beach, Kontny says.

To learn how to detect explosives in the crowded, often turbulent atmosphere of an airport, TSA dogs and handlers spend 11 weeks in a program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, long a military canine training center. There, handlers study dog anatomy and behavior. As a result, she knows things about dog care many pet owners may not. For instance, healthy dogs should be fed twice a day, and their noses should always feel cold and moist to the touch.

The dogs are taught what to smell for and how to sit demurely beside a suspect parcel when they find the source of the scent. As a reward, they get a toy, not food. TSA dogs must be trim and agile enough to slither under airplane seats and climb up to sniff overhead storage bins.

Beyond good health, agility and ease around people, bomb-sniffing dogs must have a natural instinct to find things and retrieve. The breed doesn’t really matter, though TSA’s dogs tend to be German shepherds, Malinois and Labrador retrievers.

But because it isn’t easy to find dogs with the right array of traits, the TSA started a puppy breeding program in 1999 at Lackland. It is based on the model of the Australian Customs Service puppy program, which breeds only Labs. The Aussies even gave Lackland dogs to help get the program started.

Brennan Fraser-Bell, of the Canberra-based Australian program, says Labs are preferred because, as a sporting breed, they’re born with hunting and retrieval instincts. The Lab gene pool is large, so the dogs usually don’t have inherited health and behavior problems. “They’re also not threatening,” Fraser-Bell says. “We don’t want people to feel scared, especially getting off a 20-hour flight.”

The pillow on my bed at home is more threatening than a Lab, so I’d be perfectly happy to see one at an airport, especially if it was brought up at Lackland, where families adopt puppies for the first year of life. This period of socialization prepares the dogs to handle encounters with people at airports. “We want the families to take them camping, to soccer games and the playground,” says Scott Thomas, program manager of TSA’s puppy breeding program.

Nero, who worked for the Port Authority of New York before teaming up with Fuller in L.A., was trained at Lackland, where Fuller was introduced to him. At Lackland, she also met handlers from New York who told her about a dog that died in the aftermath of Sept. 11. She gets tears in her eyes just thinking about it. “They’re our partners,” she says.

Nero is a handsome, powerful beast who pulls Fuller around LAX as if she were a dog toy. But that’s OK with her; you have to give a bomb-sniffing dog its head. “You don’t want an obedience school-trained dog for this work,” she says.

I watched as Nero nosed through the Delta check-in area in Terminal 4, stopping at a phone booth, as if to make a call. Fuller had set an explosives decoy near a trash can there. In a flash, Nero plunked down beside it and waited for Fuller, never knowing what he’d been called upon to sniff out or the terror it could have caused.

Innocent, loyal, useful. Boy, I love dogs.