You’ve probably seen dogs in action sniffing luggage at airports. Chances are those dogs were trained in San Antonio. The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, has opened a new bigger facility at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland where canines are trained to sniff out explosives.
At the facility, Coki is a black and white speckled beauty with a slightly reddish head. When he spots an explosive, it looks as if he’s found prey. Christopher Knight is Coki’s trainer, instructor and evaluator. He worked with larger dogs before working with Coki, who is a German shorthair pointer, about 60 pounds.
"The size is perfect as far as getting in and out of places," Knight says. "They certainly aren’t intimidating anyone, as you can see. That’s probably the No. 1 thing. They’re not deterring or scaring anyone in an airport setting."
The dogs train in settings that depict airport terminals, the inside of airplanes, vehicles and buses. Today, Coki is practicing an advanced cargo search. The training is in a large warehouse with metal shelves from floor to ceiling, filled with boxes of different shapes and sizes. Lots of nooks and crannies to hide explosives. The dogs are trained with the real deal, except extreme caution is taken to never have electricity nearby. They don’t want anything to blow up.
"We’re going to start over here," says Robert Grauel, a TSA training supervisor. "The dog is trained to find explosive odors."
Coki jumps high and low sniffing every box that Knight points to.
"When you see the dog’s tail extra, the handler’s going to say, 'hey, I have a change of behavior going on.' Where do you think it is?" Graul says.
Coki comes to a stop. He squats down, staring underneath some shelving. Aside from his tail which wags very quickly, he’s frozen. Coki’s found his target.
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger says modern technology just doesn’t compete with nature.
"As you know—canines—there’s probably no better technology for detecting explosives than the nose of a dog," Neffenger says. "Plus, it’s a mobile form of technology so you can move it around to where you need it to be."
The TSA takes dogs, including rescue dogs, from all over the country as long as they meet their requirements. Sometimes they recruit dogs from overseas. It takes 15 to 25 weeks to train a dog before it is paired with a student handler.
The San Antonio training campus is the largest explosives detection program in the Department of Homeland Security. The bigger, new facility is LEED silver certified, has five classrooms, 95 staff and 175 students a year. It cost $12 million and has enough kennels to train 250 dogs, like Coki. Dogs trained here are used in airports across the United States.