Why Are Dogs Used to Detect Explosives?

Explosive detection dogs have been used for decades by military and security personnel around the world to seek out explosive devices and communicate when their presence has been located. 

Since the concept of bomb detection began, people have attempted to create a device as reliable as the dog’s nose for detecting explosives. However, even though technology has advanced so far that humans are able to browse the internet from their mobile phone, watch movies in 3-D, and have virtual meetings with their work colleagues from the comfort of their home, we still have not been able to create an explosive detection device as reliable as the detection dog.

explosive detection dog checking for bombs at airports

Which technology is used for detecting explosives?

There are several devices utilised in industries where explosives detection is necessary. 

Trace detection devices utilise the sampling of vapors being emitted from explosive devices to indicate that an explosive substance is present. These work best with liquid-based explosive materials, but can work on solid explosive materials once the materials begin naturally decomposing. 

There are also devices that can scan for the presence of explosive particles upon contact with an object or person. This method requires that the sample be sent to a lab afterwards for confirmation. Bulk explosive detection technology utilises imaging to identify when large quantities of explosives are present. X-ray technology and metal detectors are also used to identify the presence of explosives; however, these struggle to detect plastic-based explosives devices. 

Depending on the nature of the job at hand, each of these specific technologies have their strengths and weaknesses. When used in combination with one another, they can be an effective means of detecting explosive devices in certain situations. 

Unfortunately, these methods are not entirely reliable, and many require several steps before it is possible to identify if an explosive is present. The effectiveness of these technologies is also dependent upon the human using them being in the right place at the right time.

Why are dogs used for detecting explosives?

Although the aforementioned explosives detection devices are effective in certain situations, none of them have the capability to lead the user directly to the location of an explosive. In situations where bombs might be planted anywhere, it would be time-consuming – not to mention extremely dangerous – to manually check every inch of a building with one of these devices. 

Dogs possess incredibly refined olfactory systems. They are capable of locating trace amounts of explosive substances, even if the device is hidden or even buried. Every object and living thing emits odour molecules, and these molecules form a “scent cloud” as an object sits in one place. The longer an object remains in one place, the larger the scent cloud becomes. These odour molecules waft through the air, becoming stuck on other surfaces or continuing to float further from the original source. 

With their incomparable olfactory systems, dogs are capable of detecting these odour molecules as they move away from source, singling in on them while ignoring all other odours and following them to the scent cloud. Once a dog has located the object’s scent cloud, it is typically able to quickly locate the object itself. 

Dogs can be trained to detect the presence of objects within massive spaces, regardless of how many other scents or distractions are present, and regardless of where the object is hidden. This capability is something exclusive to trained detection dogs. Even though people have spent years attempting to develop an explosives detection device as reliable and efficient as the canine nose, we have not yet succeeded.

german shepherd and handler searching for explosives

Where can dogs be used to locate explosives?

Well-trained explosive detection dogs are used to locate bombs at large scale events, in airports, on the battlefield and in any other location where acts of terrorism might occur. 

Handlers will cue the dog to search, and then systematically search the entirety of a premises, following their dog’s cues in the process. It will typically become quickly apparent when an explosive is near, as a well-trained detection dog will begin displaying a number of unique body language cues. They will typically begin hunting more quickly and thoroughly until they can lead their handler directly to the source’s location.

An explosive detection dog will quickly begin searching for target odours as soon as they are cued to do so. They work independently, without focusing on their handler or any other environmental stimuli, and the moment they detect any amount of a trained odour, they quickly focus on finding its location. Once they locate the source of target odour, they exhibit a trained indication. This indication is the dog’s way of communicating to their handler that “an explosive is here”. 

If the source is behind a wall, a door or buried under the ground or flooring, dogs will show a great deal of enthusiasm around the area and will cue as close as they can safely get to the source. Upon indication, a handler is quickly able to move the dog away, reward it and have the explosive device quickly and safely removed by trained security personnel.

In conclusion

Detection dogs save the lives of countless people each year by doing a job that would be incredibly difficult – and perhaps impossible – without them. By leading their handler directly to explosive devices, they save enormous amounts of time when it is most critical. They do not fall prey to many weaknesses that security personnel will find with other bomb detection technology, and do not require a multi-step process for confirming the presence of explosives. 

Explosive detection dogs are used for a number of reasons, but the most significant reason is because they are still the most accurate, effective and efficient tool at the disposal of security and military personnel for detecting bombs where it really counts.

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