Continuous Training Keeps NGA’s 4-legged Employees Up to Snuff


By Dale Lehner, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Office of Corporate Communications

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is committed to hiring, training and retaining the best-qualified employees to accomplish its mission — even when those employees have four legs instead of two.

The NGA Explosives Detection K-9 teams make up the front line of defense when ensuring delivery vehicles are thoroughly inspected — inside, outside, around and under. The teams inspect the agency’s campuses with the same precision — conference rooms, mailrooms and parking lots, as well as random inspections of employee cars. They must operate at 100 percent accuracy when doing their jobs, as anything less could lead to dire consequences. There is no room for error; training is key and there are no days off.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is the primary source for NGA’s canines. Dogs identified as program candidates undergo six weeks of training at the bureau’s Front Royal, Virginia, site before being assigned to a permanent partner.

Basic smell

Phase 1 training focuses on imprintation, which is a classic conditioning training model. The dogs are offered an explosive compound to smell, then given a food reward. Repetition is important; the smell-eat process may be repeated up to 200 times a day. Once imprinted, the dogs are then taught to sit, or alert, when the odor is smelled. The cycle of detection is complete — smell, sit, eat.

The second 10-week training phase introduces the dog to its handler, and the two begin working together to refine their search techniques in a variety of environments — cars, buses, structures and open areas. This phase is as important for the handler as it is for the dog — it’s not just about walking around and waiting for the canine partner to alert on an explosive. It involves the handler learning to recognize those subtle, nuanced clues the canine partner cannot voice — clues that may lead to finding a hidden explosive or weapon.

ATF estimates there are 19,000 explosive formulations, which are based off a finite group of explosive components. The K-9 dogs can find all of them, no matter which of the 19,000 combinations is being used.

Here’s why: the dogs can break down complex odors into their basic components.

It works like this. A person will walk into a kitchen and smell spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove. A dog walks into the kitchen, sniffs the air but does not identify the smell as spaghetti sauce. Instead, the dog smells each individual ingredient in the sauce — the tomatoes, onion, garlic, beef, basil and pepper, as well as any ingredients the chef hopes to keep secret.

So, the canine nose does not smell the explosive formulations, just the base explosive. No matter how a bomb is assembled, the dog will always know it is a bomb.

A serious relationship

NGA’s K-9s live with their handlers, and training continues at home. Officers have ‘odor’ canisters and set up various search scenarios for the dogs to work — seek, alert, eat — to keep the training interesting and to prevent boredom.

“I have a good relationship with my neighbors,” said Officer Herb, the K-9 unit’s commanding officer. “They have no problem with [K-9] Frisco searching their cars — as long as I remove the odor after the search.”

The units also train daily at work. Quarterly testing at NGA ensures the teams are working at peak performance, ascertains whether there are deficiencies that may need remedial training and preps both K-9 and partner for their yearly ATF certification test. The only passing score is 100 percent.

Ofc. Chris, a 13-year K-9 program veteran who began his career with a German Shepherd named Reno, is no stranger to the process. He understands from experience why living and working together cements the partnership.

By cultivating a strong bond, the human and canine learn each other’s mannerisms — what is normal behavior — and when one or the other is having an ‘off’ day.

During their time together, Chris and Reno were deployed to an overseas facility, where they were responsible for inspecting incoming vehicles. A local repairman once arrived at the gate for a day of work. His flatbed truck had two storage boxes attached underneath the bed in front of the rear wheels. The first was open; the second closed and locked.

“We started searching the truck, working around and down the side with the containers,” said Chris. “Reno searched routinely along the first unit and on toward the second. At the second box, the only thing I noticed from Reno was a very slight change in behavior, something out of the ordinary for him, before he continued on around the truck.”

Even though Reno did not alert, the slight abnormality in his behavior caused Chris to instruct the driver to pull the truck across the street, where the driver unlocked and opened the door to the storage unit. In the second search, the now-open second box revealed two ammunition cans filled with extra parts and tools. The workman had picked the cans off a trash pile and had been using them for storage for over a year . Even still, Reno had obviously smelled residual odor through the locked container.

Chris came to NGA with his second partner, K-9 Andy. Andy retired August 1, 2015, after a seven-year career as an explosives detection officer. He had reached the maximum working age of 8. The cycle of training is beginning again for Ofc. Chris, this time with K-9 Margie, a 19-month-old black Labrador. Chris and Margie will train every day to perfect their tradecraft — to prevent unwanted consequences — since anything less than 100 percent
accuracy is simply not good enough.

View video of NGA’s K-9s in action.

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