Who doesn’t need a spring break this year? I’m kind of wishing I could go back to high school just to get one. For you lucky families, couples and intrepid individuals heading off soon to warmer climes, please remember to thank the hardworking security and screening personnel who show up daily — even when threatened with a delayed paycheck — to make your flight safety a priority.
And if some among them ignore you, don’t take offense. It’s their job to keep their noses down, or up.
We recently got an opportunity to go inside Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to meet six of the Transportation Security Administration’s sniffer dogs who work like, well, you know.
TSA dogs, officially called Passenger Screening Canines, have been getting a bit of press lately due to a shift in hiring over the past several years from pointy-eared breeds to those with floppier ears. The thinking, according to TSA Administrator David Pekoske speaking to the Washington Examiner, is that the latter “recruits,” including Labs, golden retrievers and Vizslas, seem friendlier and more disarming to nervous travelers than, say, German shepherds.
You can imagine the reaction by loving shepherd owners. Personally, we at Inspired love ‘em all. And, yes, we will find a way to feature cats eventually, but it’s very unlikely that it will be in a story about paying attention to rules. Now, about those dogs. TSA Public Affairs spokeswoman Lorie Dankers answered some of our most pressing questions related to the now universal experience of standing in line with our aerosols, gels, creams and pastes neatly packed into travel-sized containers of no more than 3.4 ounces.
TSA agents and dogs have a mission. Let them fulfill it.
These human-dog teams are working the security lines to keep you safe. The dogs are trained to detect the scent of explosives or explosive materials.
Sorry, but please don’t pet the pooches.
These are not therapy dogs, which you might also see at the airport and which welcome petting. Dankers knows that it’s hard to resist reaching out and giving the TSA dogs a snuggle. But they’re laser-focused on their mission. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t offer them food. (That goes for the TSA humans, too).
Seven breeds work especially well here.
These breeds are singled out for TSA service: German shepherds and Belgian Malinois (both pointy-eared!), Labrador retrievers, German shorthaired pointers, wirehaired pointers, Vizslas and golden retrievers. Interestingly, three of the six dogs we visited with at MSP were the German shorthaired pointers. Trainers are looking for dogs with excellent scent capabilities and high-energy drive to work.
Training is formidable.
The TSA has nearly 1,100 canine teams in operation across the United States. Of those, 675 are state and local law enforcement handlers, in addition to 422 federal teams where the canine has a TSA handler. Some handlers come to this work after years in the military. The canine teams undergo 12 weeks of intensive training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in San Antonio, a $12 million canine training center that includes 25,000 square feet of space with seven classrooms, office space for 95 employees and a 100-seat auditorium. Thirteen indoor venues mimic a variety of transportation sites, including a cargo facility, airport gate area, checkpoint, baggage claim area, interior of an aircraft and mass transit station, among others.
“Some of our dogs helped law enforcement sweep U.S. Bank Stadium before the Super Bowl,” Dankers noted, adding that the teams undergo stringent annual recertification as well as nearly daily training.
These dogs have a keen sense of smell.
The dogs are trained to detect an explosive scent, Dankers said. “It is not the dog’s job to tell us what it is.” Should the dog alert his or her handler to the presence of an explosive odor, the TSA follows an established procedure to resolve the alarm. “Most passengers won’t even notice,” Dankers said.
The handlers own their special TSA dogs.
And, judging by the relationships of the six teams we witnessed, they are indeed best friends and they do get to snuggle in their free time. The handlers talk lovingly of their dogs’ favorite squeaky toys, food and habits. Millie, a black Lab, is almost 5 “and loves tennis balls,” said her handler of two years, Denise Smith, who handed us Millie’s slick business card. Lab mix Eebbers, 8, “likes his downtime at home,” said handler Jean Carney of Eebbers, the oldest in the bunch. Eebbers was named in memory of U.S. Army Pvt. James Ebbers, who died in 2002 during the war in Afghanistan.
Sorry, but don’t hold out hope for adopting a dog.
The TSA does have an adoption program for dogs unable to complete training, but the waitlist is more than seven years long, Dankers said. In terms of retiring dogs, trainers get the right of first refusal and rarely do so. Said former handler Tyler Johnstone: “You start collecting them.”