Israeli group trains dogs for California's homeland security

November 25, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Dogs have long been used to sniff out things that humans have a hard time smelling, such as drugs, cadavers and bombs.

But an Israeli nonprofit believes that it has perfected the art of training dogs to detect explosives.

Those highly trained dogs will soon be patrolling the streets of California cities.

The state homeland security office is paying $411,000 to an organization called Pups for Peace so that eight handlers from California law enforcement agencies can travel to Israel to learn the bomb-sniffing training techniques.

After two months of training, the handlers will return to the United States with two dogs each, ready to sniff out explosives. If the pilot program proves successful, the state may try to bring it to California and offer it to more police agencies, said Chris Bertelli, spokesman for the homeland security office.

That kind of training is available in the United States.

The California Highway Patrol has been training bomb-sniffing dogs for four years and has 16 canine graduates working at truck inspection stops and elsewhere. The Highway Patrol has fine-tuned its regimen based on its experiences and what it has learned from five or six independent trainers, all based in California, said Sgt. Brad Prows, program supervisor.

But the homeland security office thinks that the Israeli program may be unique. The dogs learn their skills in urban settings in Israel, including mass-transit systems, where suicide bombings are all too familiar.

"We are doing the training in places that have been hit by terrorist attacks," said Yoram Doctori, director of operations for Pups for Peace.

The dogs learn to detect a wider array of bomb-making material, Doctori said, including "high and low explosives that we know for sure that terrorists use or might use."

In a sense, the program is returning to its roots. Pups for Peace was started in 2002 by Glenn Yago, an economist at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, in response to a hotel bombing at an Israeli resort town. The group at one time had a training facility in Southern California.

The homeland security office became interested when one of its deputy directors learned of the program at a security conference in Israel this year.

"We don't have that experience here," said Erroll Southers, now an associate director at the Homeland Security Center at the University of Southern California.

The handlers are scheduled to go to Israel in January. The program will include lectures by terrorism experts, veterinarians and dog trainers.

One of the most important parts, Doctori said, is teaching the handlers what to do if their dogs detect something.

The dogs themselves are not involved in the response. When they smell something they recognize, they merely sit and stare at the source, Doctori said.

Many of the dogs are German and Belgian shepherds, and Labrador retrievers purchased from breeders in Europe.

But the breed is less important than the dog's temperament, Doctori said. Is the animal playful and eager to please its handler?

"It's all about play with the dogs," Doctori said. "We are looking for happy dogs that will do anything to get their reward."

The group says that its dogs have thwarted attacks but that it is reluctant, for security reasons, to discuss the details.

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