Dogs and the TSA: no panacea

by Lisa Simeone on February 4, 2013

Puppy
Personally, I love dogs. I think they’re everything fans claim and more. I think they do amazing things for their human companions, up to and including saving lives. But when it comes to “security,” they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.

For years people have been claiming that bomb-sniffing dogs will solve all our problems at the airport. And for years I’ve been gainsaying that claim, based on what dog trainers say, not on what I’ve dreamed up.

Such dogs need a play break every half-hour — to run around outside, have fun, chase things — otherwise they won’t perform well. They are also prone to pleasing their handlers — yes, even highly trained dogs. They will indicate an alarm even when there is no alarm if they sense that this will please a handler. And all that is leaving aside the fact that not everyone is enamored of dogs; some people are terrified of them. They don’t want a dog’s nose in their crotch anymore than they want a TSA agent’s hands there.

But don’t listen to me. I don’t have any special knowledge. I’m only repeating what people who do have that knowledge say. People who train these dogs. Like this guy:

“I wouldn’t want to be the one who put it out to the public that the emperor has no clothes,” the head of a large urban bomb squad told me. But “dogs do not function in the way everyone thinks.” It is, quite simply, “bullshit,” he says, to think that dogs can walk through subway cars, or sniff people entering turnstiles, and detect whether they’ve brought explosives along for the ride.

Ah, but that article is about subways, you say. Surely airports are different.

Nope:

For one thing, dogs work best in quiet places that have been cleared of people other than their handlers. In airports, they are best at sniffing luggage in secluded baggage areas. Canine performance has also been shown to “fall off exponentially,” the bomb expert said, because of distractions like gusts of air, noise, food, and people—all realities, of course, of mass transit. Bomb-sniffing is also exhausting work—a kind of sensory sprint—that dogs can’t sustain for more than 20 or 30 minutes out of every couple of hours. And as they move through an area, dogs need constant reassurance and reward; if they aren’t talked to, given an explosive to find now and then, and allowed to run back and forth, they may lose interest in the game.

Here’s the false alarm bit:

One danger is that tired, cranky dogs will sound false alarms in crowded places. Canines are often trained to signal that they’ve found explosives by sitting down. But a dog that’s been pushed too hard and needs a break is apt to sit as well. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how a sitting dog at rush hour could cause a panic that would result in injuries.

Then we have this pesky problem:

In addition, dogs probably can’t be trained to detect the kind of explosives many experts increasingly worry about. Peroxide-based substances like TATP—used by shoe bomber Richard Reid and some recent terrorists in Israelare unusually unstable—prone to blow up or otherwise react in air. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to train dogs to recognize their scent, because to do so requires repeated reinforcement and practice, and that would be dangerous for the canines and their handlers.

These problems have been known for a long time. That article is from 7 years ago. Yet that hasn’t stopped the TSA from throwing money on top of money at its canine program, just as it threw money at the radiation-emitting scanners, which it’s now removing from airports, to the tune of billions of dollars.

Still don’t believe me? Here are three more articles. One from the Christian Science Monitor in 2010:

Concerns about costs and passenger resistance (whether possible allergic reactions or fear of being bitten) top the list. Training a single dog and the dog’s handler can take 10 weeks or more, not including regular recertification. Moreover, real explosives must be used to train dogs, which can be both inconvenient and potentially hazardous.

One big concern, Mr. Price notes, is that explosive-sniffing dogs are effective for only one or two 30-minute sessions a day. They may become ineffective after that, mostly because they get bored, he says. Their record is not perfect, either. Earlier this month, bomb-sniffing dogs in England initially failed to detect bomb material hidden in printer cartridges shipped from Yemen. Three bomb-sniffing dogs assigned to inspect cargo at Philadelphia International Airport earlier this year were reported to fail recertification tests.

The number of dogs required to sniff at least 2 million domestic airline passengers a day would be large, acknowledge Price and others. There would need to be a huge force of such dogs, not to mention kennel space near airports.

Here’s an article from International Business Times just a few days ago, referring to a new Government Accountability Office report:

. . . the GAO says the canine teams aren’t even being used efficiently or effectively.

The government watchdog agency looked at data the TSA kept on its canine program from September 2011 to July 2012 and examined the extent to which TSA-deployed passenger-screening canine teams use a risk-based approach. To do the latter, the GAO conducted visits to four geographic locations that were selected based on the number and type of canine teams deployed.

In its report, the GAO derided the TSA, saying it repeatedly failed to meet training requirements of four hours every four weeks, and it vastly underused the 70 (out of a total of 760) canine teams trained to detect explosive odors on passengers.

The GAO also questioned why the TSA began deploying the passenger screening canine teams in April 2011 before determining their operational effectiveness or identifying where they would be most effective.

Silly GAO. That’s what the TSA does. Why bother studying something for efficacy before putting it into practice? Better to “roll it out” with much fanfare, like the TSA did with its other boondoggles: the scanners, the explosive-detection “puffer” machines (also sitting in a warehouse because they didn’t work), the “behavior detection officers,” the Pre-Check program.

After all, there’s money to be made, and if you waste time testing things, people might find out that those things don’t work, and then the military-security industry will be mad at you. Plus, you want to show that you’re Doing Something.

In addition to the GAO report, we also find out that some airports don’t want the canine teams at all. From a USA Today report:

. . . the GAO says seven unnamed airport operators have declined dog-sniffing teams for passengers because of concerns about how they would deal with suicide bombers.

If TSA received a specific threat against an airport, the agency says it would deploy the teams despite the opposition. But in general, TSA is trying to work cooperatively with local authorities.

Just so I get this straight, it appears that those airports don’t want to know if there’s a bomber in their midst (even though the chance of such a bomber is astronomically low) — is that right? Though even if they did, said bomber could just detonate his bomb or himself in the concourse, à la Domodedovo, thus rendering the dogs and everything else in the vicinity moot.

Are we ever going to stop trying to come up with The Answer To Every Scary Thing That Could Possibly Happen and just live our lives? Are we ever going to quit with the fear mongering and start paying attention to facts? To risk assessment, statistical analysis, historical precedent, logic, empirical evidence?

Hope, as the saying goes, springs eternal. So far, though, the signs aren’t good.

(Photo: epsos.de/Flickr Creative Commons)

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