Dogs and the TSA: no panacea

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.


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: Creative Commons)

  • It is true that dogs are not a panacea, but the GAO Report (GAO-13-239) highlights a number of management deficiencies that could make TSA’s canine programs more effective, including: (1) lack of neutral and objective testing of canine teams, (2) discontinuance of covert tests (where teams do not know they are being tested), (3) seven high-risk terminals rejecting canine teams, in part because of difficulties in coordinating responses between local law enforcement and TSA civilian handlers, (4) airport infrastructure problems with caring for off-duty canines, (5) failure to deploy canine teams outside of sterile areas (i.e., “before security”), (6) reassigning passenger screening teams to cargo duty, (7) ineffective mining of data on TSA’s Canine Website System, and (8) failure to use private canine contractors when these might be more affordable than in-house TSA operations. Other reports, including one issued by the majority staff of the House Homeland Security Committee and the DHS Inspector General have also noted some of these problems. – John Ensminger

  • Susan Richart

    Here’s a link to an information-filled comment from a former dog handler concerning sniffer dogs:

    The entire thread is quite interesting.

    • Confirms what I’ve learned elsewhere:

      “Sometimes the dog will THINK he’s right, and not trust his own nose, and he’ll look to the handler for the answer, right or wrong. (You can do this with your dog as well – look at a dog hard enough and he’ll just about do whatever it is you need him to do in many situations. Dogs are domesticated enough that looking to humans for guidance is instinctual – they’ve proven this in multiple experiments – and when they feel confused or when they’re picking up nervousness from upleash they can easily be cued.)”

      TRANSLATION: False Alarm.

      And later in that same thread: fertilizer, once again, causing a false explosives alarm. This already happens all the time at the airport.

      • Susan Richart

        To expand on your final thought, Lisa:

        “When that little girl in the wheelchair was secondary screened by TSA for explosives and it made headlines, the simple question to ask would’ve been, ‘has your mom done a lot of gardening? have you been to Home Depot recently?’ I mean, I’ll buy that they still need to swab the chair, but logic should’ve prevailed. There’s generally a rational explanation. Ask mom if she’s been somewhere where you can pick up fertilizer and still say, ‘because your chair tested positive we just need to look through your bag – it’s standard procedure’. That’s fair. Acting like an azzhole is not.”

  • RB

    Good info on how poorly TSA approaches security.

    What caught my eye, other than the dog issues was this:

    “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 Israel—are unusually unstable—prone to blow up or otherwise react in air.”

    If I understand correctly peroxide based explosives is the reason for the restrictions on liquids but TSA in all of its wisdom just tosses these “to dangerous to fly” likely to ustable to transport items in common trash right at the checkpoint instead of treating them like the potential danger they actually represent. If we can infer from how TSA handles these items then we have to believe that no risk or threat is presented by the liquid items that TSA confiscates.

    So good evidence suggest that the TSA Canine program is not very effective.

    Evidence suggests that no science supports TSA’s BDO program.

    Evidence suggests that the Whole Body Imagers are subject to false positives

    Evidence shows that TSA Explosive Trace Detectors are highly prone to false positives.

    Ample cases of TSA employees not knowing or misrepresenting TSA polices demonstrate a poorly, ineffective airport screener cadre.

    TSA’s policies totally ignore the real potential of airport workers being the true threat nexus while TSA subjects the public to humiliating invasive screening procedures that exceed any concept of a limited administrative search for weapons, explosives and other weapons..

    Seems evidence proves that TSA is a massive waste of tax monies and does not meet the needs of the public.

    Why do we have TSA?

    • Daisiemae


  • Susan Richart

    Caveat: I didn’t read all the links.

    The GAO investigation into the use of the TSA dogs took place between May of 2011 and April of 2012.

    In November of 2012, the TSA said it was closing its puppy facility in San Antonio.

    (You will recall that each puppy was named after a person who died in the attacks of 9/11.)

    I think I smell another rat here, a rat similar to the rat that is the removal of backscatter.