The newest tools in the New York Police Department’s counterterrorism arsenal have paws instead of buttons, they bark instead of beep and they run on treats, not electricity.
Franky, Rob, Rowland and Eddie are a new type of police dog trained to pick up the scent of a bomb hundreds of feet away and then lead their handlers to the source.
“Explosive odor-pursuit dogs,” as they are known, are asked to intercept suicide bombers and other terrorists before they reach targets like concerts, parades and sporting events.
“It gives us a little bit more reaction time,” Chief James R. Waters, the commander of the Police Department’s counterterrorism division, said. “And it gives us a bigger perimeter of safety.”
The dogs are part of the police’s security plan for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which officials revised after several recent terror attacks around the world. The parade on Thursday will be the dogs’ biggest assignment to date, with 3.5 million spectators expected to attend.
The Police Department decided to acquire the dogs after a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England in 2017 left 22 people dead and more than 100 injured.
Chief Waters said the police in New York studied the attack and noticed how the bomber waited until the crowd was leaving the arena to blow himself up.
Tony Guzman, the founder of a company in Miami, Fla., that developed the training for odor-pursuit dogs, said officials had seen a similar scenario play out in other deadly mass attacks, such as the Brussels bombings in 2016 and the Paris attacks in 2015. He said he believed using these types of dogs could have helped prevent the attacks or lessened their toll.
The odor-pursuit dogs are drawn from pointy-eared breeds like German shepherds and Belgian Malinois, whose traits dovetail with the job. They can pick up scents at longer ranges than other police dogs, and will start a search without waiting for their handlers’ directions. “Their nose is better, their pursuit is better, their drive is better,” Mr. Guzman said of the breeds.
Dogs have a long history in law enforcement, having been introduced to police work in the early 20th century. They have primarily been used to track down suspects, conduct search-and-rescue missions and to sniff out drugs or explosives.
The New York City Police Foundation purchased four odor-pursuit dogs from Mr. Guzman’s company, Metro Dade K-9 Services, last year, with funding from a single donor. Since January, the Police Department has used the dogs, which cost about $50,000 each, at events like the St. Patrick’s Day and the Veterans Day parades.
Chief Waters said he was skeptical until the dogs were tested in the chaos of the city, first on a windy day at the World Trade Center, then in the hubbub around Times Square.
“I brought my own decoy this time,” he said. “And I brought someone out from a distance that the dog didn’t know, and the dog passed with flying colors.”
The dogs offer the police a less invasive and more efficient way to screen passers-by, he said.
The new dogs have a longer range of smell than the other police canines like Vapor Wake dogs, which detect the smell of explosives on people near them. Those dogs are primarily Labradors, whose friendly nature allows them to work in crowds.
Training for Vapor Wake dogs was developed in Alabama after Richard C. Reid tried to detonate explosives in his shoe aboard a flight from Miami to Paris in 2001. After the Brussels attack in 2016, Mr. Guzman’s company developed training for the odor-pursuit dogs.
Mr. Guzman said his company has sold 60 odor-pursuit dogs so far, and expects demand to grow next year. The Miami-Dade Aviation Department, which manages local airports in that area, has purchased six dogs since the program was developed.
The dogs receive six months of basic training — a mixture of standard obedience training and exercises to teach them to identify live explosives. Then they train for an additional 16 weeks with their new handlers, Mr. Guzman said.
The handlers give them commands in Dutch, Czech and Slovak, in a nod to their origins: The dogs are bred in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Two of the dogs are named for police officers killed in the line of duty: Frank LaSala died after rescuing people from a fire in 1987 and Eddie Byrne was assassinated while guarding a witness’s home in 1988.
A third is named for Lt. John Rowland, who died last year from an illness related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. And the fourth is named for Robert Michael Kelly, a Marine killed in 2010 in Afghanistan who was the son of the current White House chief of staff John F. Kelly.
While their handlers are obsessed with preventing a bombing, the dogs have only one thing in mind, Chief Waters said: the reward. It can be a meaty treat, a chew toy or a plain piece of PVC pipe from the hardware store.
“They don’t know they’re sniffing for black powder, TNT and ammonium nitrate,” he said. “All they know is, ‘this is what you trained me to smell for, give me my toy, give me my reward.’”
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