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Port Authority 'detection dogs' hunt explosives, drugs

Officer Michael

Officer Michael "Chip" Valentine heaps praise upon Beny after the detection dog identifies which suitcase, among many empty ones, holds explosives. Beny has been trained for such searches since puppyhood. (Aug. 16, 2012) Credit: Craig Ruttle

Beny, a playful 8-year-old Labrador retriever from Massapequa Park, is focused on a chew toy every time he goes on patrol -- but he's actually searching for explosives, a job he's been trained for since he was a puppy.

He is among an elite group of 46 "detection dogs" in the Port Authority's K-9 unit, roughly 20 of which live on Long Island. The animals are agile, with acute hearing and a powerful sense of smell, which allows them to detect even a few particles per trillion of a substance, experts and their trainers say.

"They're not perfect, but they rank ahead of every machine in the world," in finding explosives or drugs, said Beny's trainer, Port Authority Officer Michael Valentine, 41, who, like all the unit's trainers, keeps his dog at his home. "They're very good at what they do."

The unit's dogs sniff more mundane scents in backyards from Kings Park to Melville during their off-hours, but none are native Long Islanders. Like nearly all police dogs in the United States, the unit's dogs were born in Europe. Countries including Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany produce breeds ideal for detection work, like German shepherds and pointers, trainers say.

The Port Authority looks for dogs that love to play, are sociable, in excellent health and, above all, trust their noses rather than eyes for tracking.

"It's almost like working with an athlete," said Sgt. Thomas Hering, one of the unit's head trainers. "You really have to hone their skills. We're looking for the best."

Finding dogs up to the task of protecting Port Authority sites, including Kennedy Airport and the World Trade Center, isn't easy, the trainers said.

A Connecticut dog broker has sold the Port Authority 22 of its European-born dogs at $5,000 apiece. The other 24 dogs in the unit are provided by the federal Transportation Security Administration, which trains those animals and their handlers at the National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The handlers and their dogs -- they are typically partners for life -- complete a rigorous 10-week course to learn to identify and find explosive materials in airports, airplanes, trains and other locations, followed by six to nine weeks of training at the Port Authority's K-9 training facility at Port Newark, N.J.

The dogs are taught using "operant conditioning" -- a reward-based training model in which they get a toy and lots of praise, for finding the odor of an explosive. That activity is repeated hundreds of times until the dog learns "the game."

When a detection dog identifies the strongest concentration of explosive odor, it is taught to sit at that spot rather than paw at it so as not to detonate a device.

"He has no idea he's looking for explosives," Valentine said of Beny. "He thinks he's looking for his [toy]. It's just hide and seek to him."

After work, the dogs become typical suburban pets in their handlers' homes, playing fetch with children and sleeping in dog beds on the living room floor.

"It's a great bond," said Port Authority Officer Kurt Engelhardt, 37, of Kings Park, who lives with a German shepherd detection dog named Jwo. "He loves my family, but he loves his work more."

How it's done

Training an explosives detection dog:

The dogs undergo obedience, agility and scent training.

Teaching uses "operant conditioning," a reward-based program of toys and praise for finding the odor of an explosive.

Dogs learn to sit at the spot where the strongest concentration of explosive odor is detected.

Source: The Port Authority and Transportation Security Administration

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