Wednesday began just like any other workday for Eebbers, a diligent bomb-sniffing dog who has labored for the Transportation Security Administration at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for 10 years.
But it was no ordinary day. The vizsla-Labrador mix, recently voted TSA's Cutest Canine in a national contest, was showered with dog toys and fed a puppy cake — shaped like a bomb — to celebrate his retirement. At 11, he was TSA's oldest working canine.
In a symbolic gesture, his TSA colleagues gently removed his black harness — the one that warns "Do Not Pet" — and replaced it with a regular collar and leash. Good boy.
"I want him to enjoy his last few years just being a dog," said Eebbers' handler, Jean Carney, who is also retiring.
Lifelong partners, Eebbers and Carney won their stripes at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, which trains about 325 canines for TSA and other agencies a year. Screening dogs like Eebbers provide an important layer of security to protect the traveling public; there are more than 1,000 such teams nationwide, including eight at MSP.
Eebbers was named for 19-year-old U.S. Army Pvt. James Ebbers who died in 2002 in Djibouti, Africa, while he was assigned to the 551st Military Police Company., based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
TSA won't elaborate on the number of suspicious people Eebbers has detected throughout his career. "I know that when they're out there on the checkpoint, I feel safer," said Marty Robinson, TSA's federal security director for Minnesota. "Our biggest threat is explosives coming through, and our canine teams are the best defense against that."
The dogs are trained to detect the scent of explosives or explosive materials while moving among travelers, usually in security checkpoint lines. If the dog picks up on something, it signals its handler, usually by sitting or lying down. Eebbers' award is a dog toy.
"His ability to search out his trained odors amazes me every day," Carney said, noting the public is discouraged from petting the dogs because they need to focus on the task at hand.
Because the dogs scan people, not static objects, "it takes a lot out of them," Carney explained. "Most dogs retire when they're seven or eight years old because it's such a high pressure job."
Dogs that detect illegal drugs usually find a fair amount of contraband. Explosives are rarer, so "you have to keep him motivated, we have to continually train and reinforce the odors to these dogs," she said.
As Eebbers grew into the job, he matured, Carney said. "He's gentle and polite. This is what he was bred to do."
And by all indications, Eebbers loved his job.
"At 3:30 a.m. he's waiting at the stairs," ready to go to work, Carney said.
When she first met Eebbers, Carney said, he "was such a puppy, so tall and lanky, and he had these great big dark eyes. I thought, 'Man, this dog is going to be a handful.'"
TSA breeds seven types of canines for the program: German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, German short-haired pointers, wirehaired pointers, vizslas, Belgian Malinois and golden retrievers. It intentionally breeds the vizslas, known for their high energy, with Labradors, which are easy to train. "He's always been a very smart dog," Carney said.
In his first day of retirement, Eebbers is expected to go for a swim at his home in Lake Okoboji, Iowa, and take a long walk with his sister Etti, who is retired from the FBI.
"We'll just let him be the dog he deserves to be," Carney said.