A St. Cloud area company that specializes in providing dogs that sniff out drugs and explosives is making a pivot with the times.
Dogs for Defense began servicing military and government contracts overseas nearly a decade ago. Now, it is adjusting to new realities at home after “soft target” terrorist bombing attacks in Paris and Boston.
The company has picked up domestic contracts to sweep concert venues and places like the Mall of America, a reflection of growing concern that large numbers of civilians gathering in one place could potentially be targeted someday.
“These aren’t your typical high-threat areas,” said Dan Hughes, the company’s chief executive officer and a former police officer and Secret Service agent. “These are just your typical everyday concerts, and they just want to make sure they are protected.”
On Saturday, two dogs were at the Capella Tower in downtown Minneapolis, sweeping the building and mixing with kids and tutu-wearing participants in an annual stair-climbing event for charity.
Dogs for Defense, one of the few private companies in the country that trains and provides drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs, started operating nine years ago under contracts with the State Department. Hughes anticipated the business would grow, especially after it became involved in a Pentagon program for pre-deployment training of dogs to detect improvised explosive devices, the signature weapons being used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a joint venture with another large security company, Dogs for Defense won a contract to detect unexploded bombs in Afghanistan.
Then demand for its services fell off.
About a year ago, perhaps a result of overseas terrorist threats on civilian targets, the company began to again receive inquiries for its services. It won a contract to screen a large software conference in San Jose, Calif. The year before, the conference had been in Paris, a short distance from where the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had been attacked, both in 2011 and 2015.
“It was the first sign that we saw that things were changing demographically and it was the private businesses that were looking for dogs,” Hughes said.
The company began work with the Mall of America and its contingent of dogs late last year, around the holidays. Then it began working several concerts.
Training begins early
Although some clients prefer breeds such as German shepherd and Belgian Malinois, others request the more affable labs and retrievers. The breed, however, is less important than the dog’s drive and ability to operate in an environment that may be loud and confusing.
Dogs begin training when they are about a year old. Training typically takes 10 to 13 weeks for explosives detection and a little less for drug detection dogs.
With a solid foundation of training, dogs can spot up to 30 different explosives and identify over 19,000 explosive compounds.
Hughes said explosives detection dogs make domestic finds more frequently than one might expect.
While the dogs have yet to find the Hollywood version of the ticking time bomb, several times a year they spot firearms, commercial fireworks, or chemicals that could be used to build an explosive device.
Drug detection dogs are certified on at least five odors. They frequently make discoveries in treatment facilities, schools and music festivals, he said.
They are not attack dogs. The company makes an effort to keep them from being intimidating. The dogs wear welcoming red bandannas, and handlers encourage petting, as long as the teams are not actively searching.
For a few minutes at Saturday’s stair climb at Capella, Aleesha Webb, of Blaine, and her 17-month-old daughter, Nina, stopped long enough to chat with Hughes and pet his German shepherd, Adak.
“From a safety perspective, the dogs provide what humans can’t provide,” Webb said later. “I, without a doubt, feel safer having the dogs there than not.”
Dogs for Defense trains the dogs on 40 acres in St. Augusta, near St. Cloud, and has plans and permits that call for a live-fire training range.
Hughes said the company goes to great lengths — the teams perform at schools and with groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts — to be a part of the community.
“We work with explosives, drugs and dogs, and all of those have high concern around them,” Hughes said.
While the company’s focus has been on explosive and drug detection, Hughes said he sees room for expansion. It has a dog trained to chase geese and other waterfowl off runways and from parks. It also anticipates growth in another area — bedbug detection.
“It’s kind of got that gross factor,” Hughes said, “but we enjoy it.”