ATF graduates 100th class of bomb sniffing dogs

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will graduate its 100th class of bomb sniffing dogs Wednesday.

Her shiny wet nose to the ground, Madison, a black labrador retriever, sniffs her way from one tin can to another. Suddenly, the dog sits down right next to one of the seemingly empty cans, her eyes darting to her handler.

Madison has just detected trace amounts of an explosive material, invisible to the human eye.

As a reward, canine handler Agent Kathy Barton Scanlan with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives feeds Madison treats from the palm of her hand.

Agent Scanlan and Madison are members of the ATF's 100th graduating class of explosives detection canines and handlers. They, along with other federal agents in the program, will receive their certificates Wednesday morning in an historic ceremony at the agency's canine training facility in Front Royal, Virginia.

The threat of a terrorist's bomb is ever present since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

"Anytime there is a large event where there is a lot of people that come together in one area, it's potentially a very good target," said Agent Scanlan.

ATF-trained canine teams are used to ensure public safety at special events, like the recent political conventions, parade routes and even the Super Bowl. The teams arrive ahead of time and scour every inch of the venue for any hint of explosives. And, the handlers feel every bit of the enormous responsibility they shoulder.

"You feel like the lives of other people are in your hands," said Scanlan, who is based out of the New Orleans ATF office.

U.S. Marshal Hank Shafer came to the Front Royal facility from Spokane, Washington.

"We're on-call 24-7 and so we train together every day. You're with your canine companion more than you are with family members," he said.

The handlers first teach new canines to recognize an array of explosive odors. Then they train the dogs to sit and alert as soon as they detect explosives residue. The handler rewards the dog with a treat and repeats the scenario many times over. Here, repetition is key.

Even at home, on days off, the dogs only eat from their handlers' hands, and only while training. That means the handlers and their four-legged partners must train every single day, no matter what.

"I wake up in the morning," said Agent Scanlan, "and we go off to work together and when we come home, she's still a part of the family, so it's a very special bond."

In this 100th graduating class the ATF has also trained members of Thailand's Royal Police.

"We've got K-9's in roughly 20 countries right now working," said ATF canine trainer, Shawn Crawford. "The U.S. Embassy, if they have a large function there, they'll call these folks to do screening at the embassy. Some of the guys here now protect the king and queen of Thailand. It's a very diverse mission."

And these canines can do more than sniff out explosives. They are also trained to detect firearms and gunpowder. They will be called on to assist local and state police departments across the country to search for weapons if a suspect tosses a firearm and runs. They'll be asked to search for empty shell casings as evidence in murder cases. And, they'll be called upon to search for guns and ammunition hidden by violent gang members. They help in executing search warrants too.

The 100th ATF canine class will graduate Wednesday morning, immediately head off to their new assignments and remain on call 24-7.

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