There's nothing Szultan and Bovli love more than to play, but when they roll into Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport with their handlers, it’s all business. After all, there’s nothing more serious than finding explosives intended for airplanes.
Szultan and Bovli are two of 1,100 dogs which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses to find explosives, bombs and dangerous materials at airports across the United States. These two work full-time at DFW and spend nights with their handlers.
Both Hungarian Vizslas – Szultan, four and Bovli, nine – are up for the job as long as they get a few seconds with their favourite chew toys when they make a find.
Bomb-sniffing animals have become more common at airports across the country as the TSA tries to find new ways to thwart potential threats aboard airplanes. The canines spend most of their time roaming around public areas at the airport and sniffing passengers as they head through the TSA security line.
TSA’s dogs are trained only for explosives. Drug detection dogs are left to local law enforcement.
The bomb-detecting dogs at DFW are one of several layers of safety which the Department of Homeland Security has at airports, from bag screenings to passenger scans, said TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon.
Szultan, the younger pup, is eager to chase down bags when he thinks he’s found a threat. Finding actual explosives at airports is rare, so decoy explosive material is used to keep the dogs sharp and motivated.
When Szultan does catch the scent of a suspicious package, his tail shoots up and he tugs on the leash. When he catches up to the bag or suspect, as he did in a demonstration at DFW recently, he quickly sits down and waits for his reward, a red or blue chew toy.
Szultan lives and works full-time with TSA inspector Raquel Granados, who spent several weeks last year at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Only a handful of dogs make it through bomb-detection training, which requires that a dog not only have a strong nose but can focus on work.
That’s why the dogs wear vests labeled “DO NOT PET”.
“Petting does distract them from working,” Granados said. “It’s also a safety issue. We don’t want people to give the dogs something that could harm them.”
The TSA’s passenger-screening canines are trained only for detection, so when they do find something, they identify and wait rather than attack or apprehend.
“He’s my roommate, he’s my best friend, he’s my work partner,” said Granados, who has been with Szultan for a year. “He’s got my back and I’ve got his back, 24/7.”
Of the two, Bovli has a cooler demeanour but is still focused on his task. He’s been with TSA for five years and, at nine years old, is qualified to retire from the canine bomb-sniffing force. But the TSA is allowing Bovli to stay on a few more years as long as he shows an interest, said his handler, Thomas Varner.
“It’s all about the drive of the dog,” he said.
Since the dogs are seen as celebrities, especially by children, TSA prints out baseball-style trading cards for them that list their age, weight, breed, handler and a small biography.
Away from work at the airport, Varner said, Bovli is a regular dog. He loves to cuddle, hogs the bed and chases rabbits with enthusiasm.
“He’s become a great family dog,” Varner said. – Tribune News Service/The Dallas Morning News/Kyle Arnold