Friday, November 25, 2011

Federal Turf Wars Over How to Train Explosives Detection Dogs

On August 11, 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a memo to the Directors of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) specifying that as “soon as practicable, all Department components that use explosives detection canines shall use only canines certified by ATF.”(1) This did not happen in the Bush administration, and seven years later in the Obama administration the FBI continues to use dogs not certified by the ATF.(2) While the turf war between the FBI and ATF has involved much more than dogs,(3) here we will focus on those aspects relevant to canine training and deployment.

From a fairly clear designation in 2004 of the ATF as the agency responsible for certification of explosives detection dogs, it now appears that both the FBI and ATF apply different philosophies with regard to training explosives detection dogs, and it is not clear that the Department of Justice still expects there to be any real amalgamation of canine functions. It may be that Justice has settled for relatively specific boundaries between the two bureaus that can at least keep their squabbling from being aired in public.(4)

An increasingly important player in the field of canine training is the Transportation Security Administration within the Department of Homeland Security. TSA’s power may become sufficiently great in the end that this agency will ultimately determine the most widely used parameters for federal explosives detection dog training.

ATF’s Odor Recognition Proficiency Standard

The Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act of 1997(5) had authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to establish a standard for explosives detection canines to be employed by federal agencies or other agencies providing explosives detection services at airports in the U.S. At the time, ATF was in the Department of Treasury, but was transferred to the Department of Justice in 2003. Section 653(a) of the Act provided: “The Secretary of the Treasury is authorized to establish scientific certification standards for explosives detection canines, and shall provide, on a reimbursable basis, for the certification of explosives detection canines employed by Federal agencies, or other agencies providing explosives detection services at airports in the United States.”

Treasury designated ATF with the responsibility of developing the standard.(6) In 1999, ATF noted that it had provided copies of the odor recognition standard to “all interested persons” and that it had “solicited input and recommendations from other Federal law enforcement agencies that use explosives detection canines.” On March 10, 1999, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation for the U.S. Department of Energy, issued a final report concluding that ATF’s odor recognition proficiency standard was “valid for the measure of the proficiency for detecting explosives odors at the recognition and alerting phase of training.”(7)

There does not seem to have been a problem until ATF was transferred to the Department of Justice on January 24, 2003, at which point it became apparent to ATF officials that the FBI was not accepting ATF’s mandate regarding explosives detection dogs for federal agencies.

2007 Agency White Papers

In 2007, the FBI and ATF developed “white papers” that were attached to an Explosives Review Group report to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. It must have been obvious to McNulty and other DOJ officials that Ashcroft’s memo had not been implemented. The FBI’s white paper argued that:

• DOJ components should use only canines meeting Scientific Working Group on Dogs and Orthogonal Detection Guidelines (SWGDOG) Certification.
• The FBI should continue its joint training initiative on peroxide explosives scent training.

ATF argued that:

• All DOJ explosives detection dogs should be procured, trained, and certified by ATF.(8)
• Any training related to explosives detection canines sponsored, coordinated, or presented by DOJ components should be coordinated through ATF.

ATF was willing to agree that if an ATF-certified canine was not available, a DOJ component could, in the interim, use a dog trained and certified to standards set by SWGDOG.(9) The photograph is from ATF’s website, showing an ATF dog in training.

2009 Inspector General Audit

An audit report of the Department of Justice Inspector General released in October 2009 (“2009 audit report”) concluded that the FBI and ATF had failed to implement Ashcroft’s 2004 directive, and that the two agencies continued to disagree on the guidelines for training explosives detection dogs.(10) The report determined that “the FBI generally uses non-ATF certified canines.” A survey of FBI explosives specialists determined that more than 80% rarely or never used ATF-certified dogs, relying instead primarily on explosives detection dogs provided by state and local agencies that are often not ATF-certified. The FBI’s uniformed police use ATF-certified dogs, but FBI field divisions generally rely on state and local dogs or the explosives detection dogs actually owned by the FBI (numbering only four in 2009).

“Although the FBI and ATF agree that DOJ should have a single certification standard for canines, they disagree on the how the standard should be established. ATF developed the National Odor Recognition Training and Testing (NORT) program as a standardized method for assessing a canine’s ability to recognize explosives odors. NORT is a test administered by ATF forensic chemists to federal, state, and local canine teams.

“The FBI believes NORT may not actually assess the operational capabilities of the canine and that the certification standards should be determined by the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal detector Guidelines (SWGDOG). SWGDOG is composed of members from federal, state, and local agencies, including both ATF and the FBI.(11) While SWGDOG is a non-certifying body that provides best practice guidelines, it anticipates that these best practices will be incorporated into participating organizations’ certification standards."(12)

The Inspector General described the FBI and ATF as having “developed separate and often conflicting approaches to explosives investigations and related activities such as explosives training, information sharing, and forensic analysis.” The Inspector General warned that this continuing friction meant that the agencies might not meet the requirements of Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-19 (February 12, 2007), “which requires a united, multi-layered strategy to mitigate the threat and prevent the use of explosives by terrorists.”

The Inspector General noted that despite ATF being responsible for certification of all DOJ explosives detection canines, “the FBI continues to disagree with ATF on canine certification standards. We also found that DOJ sent conflicting signals to the components, directing that one standard for training canines be administered through ATF, but also funding a working group seeking to adopt a different standard through the FBI and DOJ’s National Institute of Justice.” The working group is a reference to SWGDOG.

The FBI told the Inspector General that the HSPD-19 Implementation Joint Program Office (JPO) was designed to resolve issues not previously resolved through other mechanisms. Concerning this, the 2009 audit report stated:

"We found that the JPO was not designed to function as the deciding authority on roles and responsibilities for the FBI and ATF in handling explosives incidents, but instead was conceived to be a formalized, interagency discussion forum. Unless there is consensus among the agencies involved the JPO cannot force settlement between components. Therefore, while the JPO and its members may be used to assess and reflect community opinion and advise on priorities, individual agencies will continue to make programmatic and budgetary decisions independently."

The Inspector General found “no evidence that the FBI and ATF worked together to establish DOJ explosives training priorities, and the two agencies reached no consensus on the use of explosives detection canines.”(13) This was true despite the fact that the two agencies train dogs for similar, or at least overlapping, purposes.

"[E]xplosives specialists from both ATF and FBI are providing peroxide-based explosives detection training to state and local bomb squad canine teams and both components disagree about the standards that should be used to certify explosives-detection canines."

Other agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, work with both the FBI and ATF on canine issues:

"According to ATF, it began training explosives detection canines on peroxide-based explosives in 2002 after the ATF Laboratory worked with British authorities to develop an effective method of producing explosives used for training purposes. In 2006, the National Explosives Detection Canine Training Program, which is part of the Transportation Security Administration of the Department of Homeland Security, worked with the FBI to train canine teams to detect various peroxide explosives."

The Inspector General then detailed specific canine training issues on which the FBI and ATF disagreed:

“FBI explosives specialists told us they provide bulk (15-30 grams) samples of peroxide-based explosives to state and local canine handlers to sensitize their animals to the peroxide scent.(14) ATF also conducts similar training for state and local canine handlers with trace (5 milligrams) amounts of peroxide-based explosives.(15) ATF officials argued that the FBI should not be providing such training, saying that ATF’s method is superior because training with trace amounts of peroxides enhances the canines’ ability to detect explosives. For example, because these explosives would generally be sealed in containers, the canine must be able to alert based on recognizing a trace amount of explosives left on a container lid or its scent on the potential bomber.(16)

“An FBI Explosives Unit official noted in a published FBI Bomb Data Center Investigators Bulletin that trace amounts, like those used by ATF, can be utilized to conduct training if suitable precautions are taken [citing FBI Bomb Data Center Investigators Bulletin 2006-3 entitled K-9 Detection of Peroxides]. However, the official noted that any time trace amounts of material are utilized, they are susceptible to contamination. For example, if the handler using these aids handles any other type of explosive or has an explosive residue near these aids, it is possible to introduce interfering odors. In addition, the FBI official contended that trace amounts of peroxides dissipate rapidly, and once exposed, have a very short shelf life.

“Despite these differing opinions, the differences between the FBI and ATF’s peroxide-based explosives training programs do not appear to be irreconcilable, and consolidation of the training standards should be possible. Therefore, we recommend the FBI and ATF consolidate the training for peroxide-based explosives.”

This means that in 2009, the Inspector General thought the canine training approaches of the FBI and ATF could at least be reconciled. It was not clear that this reconciliation would come about through any specific mechanism, but it appears the FBI, at least, had faith in the National Explosives Detection Canine Advisory Board (NEDCAB). Concerning this group, the Inspector General stated:

“[T]he FBI noted that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and DOJ will co-lead an interagency advisory board responsible for developing uniform standards for explosives-detection canine teams, including annual certification and recurring proficiency training. DHS and DOJ, building on the previous ATF National Canine Advisory Board, created the National Explosives Detection Canine Advisory Board [NEDCAB], which includes participants from major professional canine associations. The FBI believes that as a result of the creation of this advisory board for the first time, there is consensus across the explosives-detection canine community that national training and performance standards are needed.”

The Inspector General was not so sure that NEDCAB would be a final answer.

“As part of the JPO, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and DOJ are co-leading an interagency advisory board responsible for developing uniform standards for explosives-detection canine teams, including annual certification and recurring proficiency training. DHS and DOJ, building on the previous ATF National Canine Advisory Board, created the National Explosives Detection Canine Advisory Board, which includes participants from the four major professional canine associations. The FBI believes that as a result of the creation of this advisory board for the first time, there is consensus across the explosives-detection canine community that national training and performance standards are needed. We recommend that DOJ select and enforce a single standard for the use of certified canines for DOJ components, consistent with the requirements of HSPD-19.”

Upon release of the Inspector General’s report, FBI Assistant Director Michael Kortan and ATF Assistant Director W. Larry Ford issued a joint statement describing how the ATF and FBI have cooperated, including recommending for prosecution 192 explosive-related cases involving 397 defendants. Not surprisingly the joint statement said the two agencies are working “to resolve the identified issues to improve coordination and response to explosive incidents.”

GAO Reports

In a 2010 report,(17) GAO noted some differences between SWGDOG and ATF training, and also stated that the Transportation Security Administration’s dogs are following certification standards of ATF.

“While the mechanism of how canines detect explosives through their sense of smell is not well understood, there are several certification programs to validate the canines’ ability to detect explosives, which include specifying standards for explosives detection. These standards vary based on which entity is certifying the canine. A guiding document on the training of canines is the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detectors Guidelines that specifies recommended best practices for canine explosives detection. These standards call for an EDC to detect explosives a certain percent of the time and a probability of false alarms less than a certain rate. Certifying entities, however, may have more stringent standards. For example, ATF requires that its canines detect all explosives that are presented to them, and have limited false alarms in its tests. TSA requires that their certified canines find a specified percent of explosives in a variety of scenarios, such as onboard an aircraft, mass transit rail, and mass transit buses. Homeland Security Presidential Directive-19 tasks the Attorney General, in coordination with DHS and other agencies, with assessing the effectiveness of, and, as necessary, making recommendations for improving federal government training and education initiatives related to explosive attack detection, including canine training and performance standards. According to ATF officials, TSA, in coordination with ATF, is developing standards for EDCs, which are nearly complete and are similar to the standards that ATF uses….

“Canines have a history of being trained to detect items and in recent years have been trained to detect, among other things, explosives, fire accelerants used in arson investigations, and drugs. While training methods differ among canine training schools, these methods typically train canines by rewarding them for locating certain items. Rewards include toys, a food treat, or the canine’s food itself. In turn, these canines are trained to alert their handlers if they detect an item of interest, usually by sitting down next to the item.”(18) (emphasis added)

Yet another GAO report stated that “[p]articipants in TSA’s Transit Security Grant Program and DHS’s Homeland Security Grant Program are required to maintain data to document compliance with guidelines for their explosives detection canine teams. These guidelines were developed by a scientific working group that included officials from DHS.”(19) This is another reference to SWGDOG, the standards of which could only with some stretch be said to be “similar to the standards that ATF uses.”(20)

2010 Protocol

In 2010, Gary G. Grindler, Acting Deputy Attorney General, released a protocol superseding all prior guidance on ATF-FBI explosives coordination, including, it would appear, Ashcroft’s 2004 memo. Grindler noted the respective capacities of the two agencies:

• ATF has 2,593 Special Agents trained in post-blast and fire scene investigations.
• ATF has 244 Certified Explosives Specialists who cover much of the country.
• The FBI has 143 Special Agent Bomb Technicians (SABTs).
• The FBI has 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) around the country staffed by federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies.

Despite these areas of competence, Grindler states that “the current situation—as chronicled by the Office of Inspector General—must be remedied.” Grindler then outlines guidance, beginning with domestic terrorism explosives investigations:

“I have concluded … that the FBI should ultimately be considered the lead agency for domestic terrorism explosives investigations…. Unless the matter of lead agency has otherwise been addressed between the ATF and FBI in a particular matter, the ATF will be the lead agency for explosives investigations where there is no credible nexus to international or domestic terrorism….”

Grindler acknowledges that lead agency jurisdiction may shift during an investigation.

As to explosives training, Grindler notes that the FBI opened its Hazardous Devices School at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, while ATF has the National Center for Explosives Training and Research in Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, and the Canine Training and Operations Support Center in Front Royal, Virginia. Grindler does not side with either agency on training, but directs “ATF and FBI to develop a joint plan for consolidated explosives training of ATF and FBI agents and technicians, and state and local law enforcement, that is consistent with this protocol.” A working group—was another working group really needed?—will be created to aid in this effort, which “should identify the cost savings that can be achieved by integration of training curricula and facilities.” Joint training should begin within six months of Grindler’s memo, i.e., by February 3, 2011.

The protocol attached to Grindler’s memo ends with an explanation of what is to happen henceforth in disputes between the FBI and ATF:

“If disputes arise relating to the operation of this protocol, the Deputy Directors from ATF and FBI shall meet in the first instance to resolve those disputes. If a matter cannot be resolved at the Deputy Director level, it should be brought to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General for resolution by the Explosives Coordination Committee.”

This sort of knocking of heads may work, but if so it would likely be because of Grindler’s direct influence, since preaching to the parties has not worked for the preceding six years.

2011 Developments

A 2011 GAO report on cost savings noted that since 2004, the Department of Justice “has taken actions intended to address duplication and overlap in the areas of explosives investigations jurisdiction, training, information sharing and use of databases, and laboratory forensic analysis.”(21) The GAO refers to the DOJ Inspector General’s 2009 report, noting how the problem has continued for years without resolution. Nevertheless, the GAO’s recommendation is no more than that the Department of Justice should continue to monitor the situation.(22) The GAO made no specific mention of canine training in this report.

An ATF Fact Sheet issued September 2011 reiterated ATF’s faith in its National Odor Recognition Testing Standard (NORT) and provided the following statistics:

"There are 29 ATF–trained explosives detection canine teams with ATF special agent canine handlers. Also, there are currently 122 ATF–trained explosives detection canine teams deployed throughout the United States with local, state or other federal agencies. In addition, there are 61 ATF–trained accelerant detection canine teams currently active in the United States and one in Canada….

"Since 1991, ATF has trained 708 explosives detection canines and 157 accelerant detection canines. These dogs and their ATF–trained handlers are located throughout the United States in local police and fire departments, fire marshal offices and federal and state law enforcement agencies. Teams are also located in 21 foreign countries…. The canines are capable of detecting 19,000 explosives compounds."

Needless to say, ATF did not mention the doubts expressed by the FBI to the DOJ Inspector General regarding the NORT program in 2009.

Enter the Department of Homeland Security

Wind the clock back to 2006 when Congress was grappling with ways to turn the 9/11 Commission Report, issued in 2004, from policy perspectives and general recommendations into legislation. In the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007,(23) Congress authorized the Department of Homeland Security to create the National Explosives Detection Canine Team Training Program, and provided that this authority would extend well beyond TSA:

“Based on the feasibility in meeting the ongoing demand for quality explosives detection canine teams, the Secretary shall establish criteria, including canine training curricula, performance standards, and other requirements approved by the Transportation Security Administration necessary to ensure that explosives detection canine teams trained by nonprofit organizations, universities, and private sector entities are adequately trained and maintained.” (6 U.S.C. 1116(c)(1))

The Secretary of Homeland Security is to “coordinate with key stakeholders, including international, Federal, State, and local officials, and private sector and academic entities to develop best practice guidelines for such a standardized program, as appropriate.”

The legislative history provides limited perspective on what Congress was thinking about with regard to the TSA program:

“The Conferees recognize that explosives detection canines are not trained to additionally detect chemical, nuclear or biological weapons and that, at present, such teams cannot detect radiological materials. Further, the Conferees recognize that canines are trained to detect specific threats and cannot, at this time, effectively be crossed-trained to identify multiple threats. In requiring the TSA to develop canine training curriculum and performance standards under this section, the Conferees expect TSA to do so for those threats within the definition that are currently applicable to canine team detection. However, the Conferees trust that TSA will explore opportunities to train and/or acquire canines that are able to detect new and emerging threats, such as chemical, radiological, nuclear and biological weapons. To that end, the Conferees expect that prior to developing and distributing canine training curriculum and performance standards under this section, TSA will fully vet any ongoing training, whether domestic or international, that has a proven method to successfully detect those additional threats that may not currently be applicable to TSA-trained canines.”(24)

The legislative history is largely restricted to transportation issues, but does say that the Secretary of Homeland Security “may use the canine teams on a more limited basis to support other homeland security missions, as determined appropriate.” Had Congress considered that it had previously designated ATF with overall responsibility for explosives detection canine training in the 1997 Appropriations Act, this would have been the place to mention it, because the 9/11 legislation effectively meant that two federal agencies had been blessed by Congress with significant authority over explosives detection work with dogs.

The 9/11 Act led to no regulatory releases, though the Federal Register in 2009 referred to the National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program, which noted that survey data was being “collected electronically through the NEDCTP secure Canine Web site (accessible by authorized personnel only)” to provide feedback to the Chief of NEDCTP, “staff and supervisors on how the training material was presented and received.”(25) The TSA described NEDCTP as follows in March 2009:

“The National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program (NEDCTP) is a partnership between TSA, airports, and local law enforcement. The NEDCTP supports TSA’s mission by preparing law enforcement canine-handlers, who are not Federal employees, and canines to serve on the front lines of America’s War on Terror. These canine teams (handler and canine) are trained to quickly locate and identify dangerous materials that may present a threat to transportation systems.”(26)

In July 2011, the Department of Homeland Security published a report indicating the Department’s intent regarding canine training and deployment:

Establish DHS as a center of excellence for canine training and deployment. Canines serve essential roles in homeland security. Specially-trained canines and their handlers are essential elements of terrorism prevention efforts at the Federal, State, local, tribal, and territorial levels and in the private sector. Canines also serve essential roles in detecting narcotics at the air, sea, and land ports of entry, and in search and rescue activities following disasters. DHS will increase specialized breeding activities for canines, enhance its training and certification of canines and handlers, and become a center of excellence for employment of canines across the homeland security missions.”(27)(emphasis added)

Thus, the ultimate authority on the optimal methods of U.S. explosives detection canine training could now be the Department of Homeland Security, not an agency in the Department of Justice. Acting Deputy Attorney General Grindler’s resolution of the issue might not have been final, as DHS dogs were certainly beyond his jurisdiction.

A 2011 thesis by John P. Joyce at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California,(28) describes the TSA as having “partnered with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Institute of Justice to sponsor the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detection Guidelines (SWGDOG) to enhance the performance of the EDCTs [Explosive Detection Canine Teams] …. The SWGDOG was established in January 2005 in an effort to develop consensus-based guidelines that can be shared across all groups involved in canine detection work….”(29) Given DHS’s interest in expanding the impact of its canine training, this may mean that by 2011 TSA was siding more with the FBI on canine issues than with the ATF.(30) It may be argued (and certainly would be by anyone in the press office of either agency) that DHS and the FBI (or DOJ) will see no need to carry on the same sort of turf war as has been the case between ATF and the FBI, but government agencies seem to have an inevitable instinct for defending their authority.

Website Claims

The ATF webpage devoted to accelerant and explosives detection canines states the following:

“As the Federal Government explosives and postblast experts, ATF offers certified explosives detection canine to other Federal, State, local and foreign law enforcement agencies. ATF’s uses a food and praise reward training methodology that exposes canines to five basic explosives groups, including chemical compounds used in an estimated 19,000 explosives formulas. It is believed by ATF that exposing canines to various explosives from the basic explosive families will give the dog the ability to detect the widest range of commercial or improvised explosives possible when working in field. Successful detection of an explosive or firearm earn the canine a food and praise reward, which encourages repetition.(31) To earn ATF certification, all dogs must pass a blind test wherein they must successfully detect 20 different explosives odors, two of which they were never exposed to during training. The scientific methodology, and the training and testing protocols are certified by the ATF National Laboratory, and produce an extremely versatile, mobile, and accurate explosives detection tool.”

This does not read as though the agency has ceded authority to any other agency either within the Department of Justice or without.

The Transportation Security Administration is equally confident in the webpages devoted to its National Explosives Detection Canine Team (NEDCT) program:

“TSA's National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program prepares dogs and handlers to serve on the front lines of America's War on Terror. These very effective, mobile teams can quickly locate and identify dangerous materials that may present a threat to transportation systems. Just as important, they can quickly rule out the presence of dangerous materials in unattended packages, structures or vehicles, allowing the free and efficient flow of commerce.

“Law enforcement officers from all over the country travel to TSA's Explosives Detection Canine Handler Course at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas where they are paired with one of TSA's canine teammates. These dogs are bred specifically for the program by TSA's puppy program, also at Lackland AFB. German Shepherds, Belgian Malanoises, Vizslas and other types of dogs are used in the program because of their keen noses and affinity for this type of work. In addition to providing a highly trained dog and handler training, we provide partial funding for handler salaries, care and feeding of the canines, veterinary and other costs associated with the dog once the teams return to their hometowns.” (emphasis added)

The ability to provide “partial funding” is certainly proof of power. Lackland Air Force Base, sometimes called “Dog School,” is the largest canine training facility in the country, and the location where many military working dogs are trained. Thus, DHS is also likely using MWD training methods for domestic explosives detection dogs.

The FBI keeps a relatively low profile as to canines on its website, emphasizing its scientific approach to the use of canines. The website, on the other hand, has seven webpages that refer to SWGDOG (on November 22, 2011, in any case), more than any other federal website.

SWGDOG’s website states that the organization “is a collaboratively funded effort of the DHS, FBI, NIJ [National Institute of Justice], and TWSG [Technical Support Working Group].” Although the TWSG does have ATF connections, these appear to involve non-canine operations. SWGDOG has one representative from ATF, so it is not clear if the list of collaborative funders means merely that ATF does not now provide funding, or something more political.

If SWGDOG is to be granted such broad influence over federal canine policies, comments on proposed guidelines should be made public, and the organization should hold a public hearing before making any guideline final. Representatives of federal agencies intending to expect compliance with the guideline for purposes of contracting with private entities should be present and willing to answer questions regarding their interpretation of the proposal.

Is Uniformity Essential?

Divergence in training approaches is not necessarily a bad thing, despite the continuing concerns of the Department of Justice. Although the investigative authority of the agencies overlap, and any investigation could shift from one side to the other as new evidence concerning the perpetrators and targets develops, having dogs under different regimens, with different volumes of target samples, may to some extent make it difficult for criminals and terrorists to know how to hide their bombs. On the other hand, any approach that cannot be shown to be reliable should be jettisoned.


ATF has trained hundreds of dogs for its own agents and for other law enforcement units around the country. ATF has also partnered with a number of certifying organizations (USPCA, NAPWDA, IPWDA and NPCA) to achieve a consensus for canine explosives detection capabilities as part of the National Canine Initiative Explosives Detection Canine Certification. ATF has earned the loyalty of many explosives detection handlers around the country by having the agency’s chemists send highly sensitive peroxide-based explosives to events sponsored by such organizations.

The FBI relies on others to train its dogs (including the ATF, according to the ATF website), but has supported the development of SWGDOG, which seeks to become a standards authority for training and testing law enforcement canines in the United States (though many certifying organizations do not see SWGDOG as a resource, but more as a competitor).

TSA has control of Lackland Air Force Base, the largest canine training facility in the country, and has also supported SWGDOG. DHS also uses dogs in other subagencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, FEMA, and the U.S. Secret Service. SWGDOG, by making DHS a fan, may have effectively won control of federal explosives detection canine standards.

It is unlikely that any of these agencies will easily give up its programs or sphere of influence, and since the canine programs of the agencies are connected with other aspects of their operations, it will be increasingly difficult to impose a policy of consolidation in training philosophies. DOJ may now be accepting a bifurcated canine philosophy in its ranks, hoping to minimize friction, or at least the public evidence of friction. DHS, through TSA, is unlikely to have to accept any DOJ approaches it does not like, both through sheer numbers and because of its robust budget.

1. In a March 4, 2004, memorandum, the Attorney General identified explosives-related training as an issue for an Explosives Review Group (ERG) to review. The report produced by the ERG had recommended that Department of Justice components should use only ATF-certified explosives detection canines.
2. The FBI had 15 dogs for its uniformed officers in 2010, while ATF had over 300 dogs worldwide. James W. Hawkins, Explosives Recognition and Awareness Training: A Psychological Approach to Pre-Blast Mitigation, Master’s thesis, Missouri University of Science and Technology, 2010).
3. Administrators inside of the government were well aware that the feud between the FBI and ATF continued after 2004. The Inspector General states that “in January 2007 the ERG [Explosives Review Group] reported to the Deputy Attorney General that training related to post-blast, canines, and render-safe procedures either had not been implemented or remained highly contested.”
4. It is appropriate to note that the issue does not have to do with the number of dogs owned by the agencies. The FBI had 15 dogs for its uniformed officers in 2010, while ATF had over 300 dogs worldwide. Hawkins (2010).
5. PL 104-208 (September 30, 1996).
6. 62 Fed. Reg. 50982 (September 29, 1997
7. 64 Fed. Reg. 41487 (July 30, 1999).
8. ATF maintains the Canine Training and Operations Support Branch in Fort Royal, Virginia. This facility develops explosives detection dogs for federal, state, and local agencies.
9. The 2009 report included information on the funding of SWGDOG, showing that it received funds from the National Institute of Justice and the FBI totaling just over $500,000 from 2004 through 2008.
10. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Audit Division, Explosives Investigation Coordination Between The Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Audit Report 10-01 (October 2009).
11. The FBI has a member of the SWGDOG Executive Board, but ATF does not (board webpage checked 11/21/2011). ATF has a regular member. The Inspector General does not mention that there are also members selected from associations and other nonprofit organizations. The 55 SWGDOG members are listed on the organization’s website under the heading “Membership.”
12. The involvement of SWGDOG members in patent applications and other profit-making activities that may correlate with proposed standards has apparently not been of concern to the federal agencies.
13. Administrators inside of the government were well aware that the feud between the FBI and ATF continued after 2004. The Inspector General states that “in January 2007 the ERG [Explosives Review Group] reported to the Deputy Attorney General that training related to post-blast, canines, and render-safe procedures either had not been implemented or remained highly contested.”
14. SWGDOG’s standard SC8-Substance Detector Dogs: Explosives Detection states that “[m]inimum weight of substance odors being tested for certification shall be 113.4 grams (1/4 lb).”
15. ATF news releases often mention that ATF trainers use trace amounts of explosives. See ATF News Release, ATF Continues to Put Bite on Explosives (August 14, 2009).
16. Relationships of the agencies and organizations discussed here with individuals entities making private profit from canine scent detection approaches is a topic to be discussed separately.
17. GAO, Technology Assessment: Explosives Detection Technologies to Protect Passenger Rail, GAO-10-898 (July 2010).
18. Id., 40-41.
19. GAO, Maritime Security: Ferry Security Measures Have Been Implemented, but Evaluating Existing Studies Could Further Enhance Security, GAO-11-207 (December 2010), p. 32, n.38.
20. See TSA’s Explosives Detection Canine Program: Status of Increasing Number of Explosives Detection Canine Teams, GAO-08-933R (July 31, 2008).
21. Government Accountability Office, Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars and Enhance Revenue, GAO-11-318SP (March 2011).
22. The GAO emphasized coordination in following up on the protocol released by Grindler in a 2011 report. GAO, Law Enforcement Coordination: DOJ Could Improve Its Process for Identifying Disagreements among Agents, GAO-11-314 (April 2011).
23. PL 110-53, 121 Stat. 266 (August 3, 2007).
24. Conference Report to Accompany H.R. 1.
25. 74 Fed. Reg. 55248 (October 27, 2009); 75 Fed. Reg. 4579 (January 28, 2010).
26. 74 Fed. Reg. 9621 (March 5, 2009).
27. Department of Homeland Security (July 2010). Bottom-Up Review Report.
28. Joyce, John P. (March 2011). Thesis: The Transportation Security Administration’s Four Major Security Programs for Mass Transit—How They Can Be Improved to Address the Needs of Tier II Mass Transit Agencies. Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.
29. Joyce cites the 2005 statement of David Kotny, Director of the National Explosives Detection Canine Team Program, to the Subcommittee on Management, Integration, and Oversight of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
30. DHS has a member on the SWGDOG Executive Board. In his thesis, Joyce found that some mass transit authority officials noted that dogs “trained in a closed and somewhat sanitized airport environment are not conditioned to operate in a mass transit environment, and therefore are not as effective as those trained exclusively on mass transit.”
31. Whether this five-component approach will in fact allow a dog to alert to any explosive containing one of the components is far from certain. There is evidence that different ratios in a mixture will affect a dog’s ability to recognize a component in the mixture. For a recent study on this issue in narcotics detection, see Macias, M.S. and Furton, K.G. (2011). Availability of Target Odor Compounds from Seized Ecstasy Tablets for Canine Detection. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 56, 1594-1600, noting: “MDMA solutions were analyzed by liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry. Analysis of these samples showed a wide variance of MDMA (8–25%). Headspace SPME-GC/MS analysis showed that several compounds such as 3,4-methylenedioxyphenylacetone and 1-(3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl)-2-propanol are common among these MDMA samples regardless of starting compound and synthesis procedure. However, differences, such as the level of the various methylenedioxy starting compounds, were shown to affect the overall outcome of canine detection, indicating the need for more than one MDMA training aid. Combinations of compounds such as the primary odor piperonal in conjunction with a secondary compound such as MDP-2-OH or isosafrole are recommended to maximize detection of different illicit MDMA samples.”

This piece was written by John Ensminger and L.E. Papet.


  1. I happening to hit on a blog written by you from an old case involving a guy by the name of Russ Ebersole who was convicted of defrauding the government with his bomb sniffing dogs that couldn't sniff. He is back to running his kennel Aberdeen Acres in Winchester, Va. Frederick County Sheriff's Dept served him with warrants on 11-21-11 re: animal cruelty. His website promotes how he is training Service Dogs, one being an autistic child. Where there is money there is fraud! Sad

  2. we once sent comments to he great and mighty swgdog but the great and mighty swgdog couldn't be bothered to say thank you to us or anyone who made the same comment or even talk to us. keep kicking the shit but don't be surprised if the great and mighty swgdog has the fbi sniff your garbage

  3. One of the police K9 mag guys said you weren't worth reading because you weren't a handler. Glad to see Gene's adding color commentary.

  4. SWGDOG is a consensus guideline just like NAPWDA, USPCA and everyone else, though it pretends to be more. I watched ATF dogs for 10 years and they were usually better than everyone else.

  5. What is totally ignored in this article and between each of the government branches fighting this out is that each dog should be trained in whatever way is most productive and most effective for that dog's specific mission.

    I personally would not train a post-blast accelerant detection dog working in the United States the same way I'd train an explosives detector military working dog headed for the middle east because the work is different. There are many wrong ways to train detector dogs, but no single right way to train detector dogs. These departments should NOT be trying to unify their methods solely for the sake of uniformity.

  6. We were the first private sector company to provide explosive detection dogs in southern Afghanistan in 2004. At that time there were only about 4 of us in the country that did it. When others saw money was involved everyone overnight was a dog expert providing teams, many not very good (to be polite) at what they were being paid to do. The government once they get someone in place, it seems even if they do a less than adequate job, they keep them just so the contracting officer doesn't have to write up a new contract, bid the job, make a selection, and start over.

  7. We were the first private sector company to provide bmb dogs in southern Afghanistan in 2004. At that time there were only about 4 of us in the country that did it. When others saw money was involved everyone overnight was a dog expert providing teams, many not very good (to be polite) at what they were being paid to do. The government once they get someone in place, it seems even if they do a less than adequate job, they keep them just so the contracting officer doesn't have to write up a new contract, bid the job, make a selection, and start over.

  8. The real issue here is can dog teams conduct searches and locate explosive odors consistently and effectively. The solution is actually quite simple, however, once our Federal Government gets involved it becomes a nightmare. Turf wars, “My way is better than your way”, our agency is the best nonsense is all based in ego and false beliefs that one agency knows more than another. BS! Training working dogs is not rocket science, although if our government has its way you’d think it was. It’s understanding animal behavior and drives, establishing good training methods, selecting good dogs and handlers who have the ability to work together to search and locate explosives or whatever odors they have been trained to find.
    Instead of trying to dictate how we train, or who can train, or which way is best why not simply train certifiers who can conduct simple odor recognition test that establish the K-9 can recognize the odors it has been trained to locate, use NORT, or any suitable system. Then conduct a practical test that proves the dog and handler can conduct a safe and effective search, locate and indicate the presents of a given substance. Stop making this harder and more complicated than it needs to be. Instead of worrying how dog teams are trained, train certifiers to recognize a well-trained team from a poorly trained team. As the saying goes the proof is in the pudding. The well-trained teams will pass any test given, the poorly trained ones won’t.
    How the dog is trained, which methods are best, which agency does it best will all come out in the end. Teach individuals who want to be certifiers how to recognize well trained teams and the rest will take care of itself. For over forty years I have listened to and watched every expert tout they have the best way to do it when it comes to training working dogs, if the teams are good, if the certifier’s are fair and honest then they will ensure only good teams pass and work. This is the principle of fair competition. Stop looking for a one size fits all solution to dog training and make it a one size fits all certifier, the bad ones will weed themselves out. Establish a baseline or minimum standards, incorporate levels if you wish to set the superior trainers, dogs, handlers and vendors apart from the mediocre ones. This will end the infighting and make certification fair and balanced. Reality is there is no perfect test or perfect dog.