Inmates at the Bay Correctional Facility, above, spend months training dogs that go on to become bomb detectors. The dogs learn how to respond to basic commands and begin scent training in the Panama City, Fla., facility. The program aids both the dogs and the inmates who work with them.
A puppy enters the program shortly after birth and is exposed to various environmental aspects that focus its natural abilities over the course of its first year of life. The first three months of the pup’s life are spent there. The next nine are spent at Bay Correctional Facility. When they return to Auburn, the most exhaustive part of their training begins. In addition to scent detection training, the dogs also ramp up their conditioning, running up to 10 miles a day.
After a month or two of training upon their return to Auburn, the dogs are assigned a handler. The new teams then undergo a 10-week basic explosives handler course. Part of that training involves putting the dogs in real-world environments, such as shopping malls.
The elite dogs are eventually selected for the “Vapor Wake Detection” program. This program entails a specialized skill set developed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It trains dogs to detect carried or body-worn explosives through analysis of the plume of air coming off a person and what they are carrying through a crowd.
Traditional bomb detection dogs have the ability to sniff explosives close up. Vapor Wake dogs can sense the moving explosives at a much greater range and for as long as 15 minutes, and they are trained to track down the scent’s origin. Such skills are ideal for areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, such as the Capitol or Union Station, without slowing the overall traffic flow.
Keith Turner, supervisor of physical conditioning at the Auburn’s CTDC, said the Vapor Wake program is only for dogs who are “the Michael Jordans of the detector world.”
“It’s surprising how intelligent the dogs are,” Capitol Police K9 Technician Tiffany White said. “It exceeds any expectations you may have had before.”
The Capitol Police use the dogs in a variety of ways, spending their time at posts or mobile shifts, as well as area sweeps through the campus. The unit has an expanded scope beyond campus as well, having been deployed to the political conventions last summer.
The dogs and K9 technicians train and work together so long that deep bonds develop, with police officers echoing what the inmates at Bay Correctional Facility said about the dogs. “It’s like they are a family member,” White said.
Perhaps that explains why, when it’s time for the dogs to end their careers, which can last as long as 10 years, they frequently have homes waiting for them. Capitol Police K9 Technician Shawn Hayes, for instance, adopted his previous working dog, Hawk, in 2011.