The Fascinating History of Explosive Detection Dogs

At this point, we’re all familiar with the incredible tasks dogs are able to perform. From fully-trained service dogs who improve the quality of life for their handlers, to police K9s who help to keep communities safe, there is almost no end to the abilities of our canine companions. 

Using their powerful olfactory system, dogs are able to use their noses to discern even the faintest trace of odours. This makes them particularly well-suited for detecting explosive devices which may have been planted in a concealed or hidden manner. Sweeping an area with an explosive detection dog is an effective way to protect the public attending large gatherings such as sporting events.

In this article, we’re going to look at the history of the explosive detection dog, and how their use has evolved over the years.

Firstly - why are dogs used to detect explosives?

Whilst many devices have been used over the years to try and detect explosives – from X-ray technology to metal detectors – these devices are not infallible. For example, they can often struggle to detect plastic-based explosives.

By contrast, a dog’s nose is one of the most reliable methods when it comes to detection disciplines. A dog’s nose is anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than the  human nose. Their refined olfactory system enables them to locate even the smallest amount of odour in the largest of spaces.

An explosive detection dog can be trained to focus on the odour molecules present within explosives and ignore all surrounding scents in the atmosphere. This makes them an incredible asset when covering large areas such as sporting stadiums or in airports, as the dog is able to pinpoint the source of odour. Trained with a bark alert or other cue for their handler, the explosive detection dog’s work can lead to confident identification of an explosive device and the safe handling by a disposal unit.

shepherd military dog with service member

Bomb dogs in World War II

Although it is not clear when dogs were first used to detect explosives, scientific research developed throughout the twentieth century demonstrated the power of the dog’s nose. The working dog came into use during World War II.

During the war, military dogs were used for a number of purposes. Firstly, to protect the coastline of the United States from German or Japanese submarine activity, dogs were trained to alert their handlers to any unusual activity, and attack any intruders at their handler’s command. As the war progressed, dogs were used for tactical purposes such as relaying messages. One bizarre plan was even conceived to train ‘assault dog packs’ who could be deployed against the enemy and reduce the need for human involvement on the battlefield. The experiment did not work and was hastily abandoned. 

With German mines posing an ever-increasing threat (and with detection of them almost impossible), it was thought that dogs could locate them to reduce casualties. These dogs were designated as M-dogs. Neither the training methods or the knowledge of the canine olfactory system was as developed as we see today; dogs were exposed to buried live wires and received an electric shock when they discovered them. This meant that the dogs would be cautious when they reached ground that had been tampered with by humans.

The M-dogs achieved an 80% success rate in practice exercises, and were deployed to Europe in 1944. Unfortunately, due to the lack of human understanding and the rudimentary training the dogs had received, the operation was not deemed successful. Human and canine casualties were far higher than expected. The dogs were not able to determine the difference between other debris from the war (such as shrapnel or shells) and live mines. 

Despite the lack of success, this pioneering work set the stage for the modern-day explosives detection dog.

bomb detection dog at airport checking luggage

Modern use

Research after World War II built on the experiences of dogs and their handlers during the war. Humans came to understand the canine olfactory system in greater depth and how this could be applied to protecting the public from the threat of explosives.

In 1974, a German Shepherd owned by the New York Police Department (NYPD) detected a bomb that had been stowed inside an aircraft at John F. Kennedy Airport. This demonstrated the power of the dog’s nose and how their effective use could avert disasters. It is now commonplace to see detection dogs in airports around the world. They can be trained to detect not just explosives, but narcotics, cash, and even items like rhino horns and elephant tusks.

In the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) started training explosives detection dogs in 1986. The Federal Protective Security Explosive Detection Canine program (part of Homeland Security) started in 1998. In Canada, there are also several accredited organizations (including K9 Knose-it) which help local, state and national organizations to keep the public safe from explosives, using certified dog and handler teams.

Across the globe, explosive detection dog teams are used in a number of scenarios. The United Nations utilizes them in peacekeeping efforts and at checkpoints and borders. Military teams use them to check for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in warzones. They are used at sporting events and concerts to ensure that no explosives have been planted which could pose a risk to the public. Large conference centres also use these dogs to sweep the grounds and protect their attendees.

In conclusion

It seems there is no end to the incredible feats a dog can perform. Of all the tasks we can train them to do, there is perhaps none riskier than the act of detecting an explosive device that, if detonated, could result in injuries or fatalities.

With terrorism at home and abroad on the rise, and the increase in the use of IEDs and other explosive devices, we should all be grateful for the role the explosive detection dog plays in keeping us safe. 

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