2011-09-28 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

“Stop the threat before it happens” is the motto of the Amtrak Police. The nose knows. But no nose knows like that of a highly trained dog. To top that, the Amtrak K-9 Unit has brought explosive detection to a new level of proficiency. Certain Amtrak dogs are able to pick out those planning to be suicide bombers, and the dogs do so without frisking anyone or impeding the flow of foot traffic.

Special teams of Amtrak “vapor wake” dogs sniff railways, terminals and stations to prevent a terrorist wearing or carrying a hidden bomb from vanishing into thin air. The vapor wake dog samples the plume of odor coming off the person and can also detect a lingering explosive scent after the suspect transits the area. Locking on like a laser beam, the dog follows the specific whiff to the source and then subtly cues his handler. To the dogs, this dangerous duty is all part of a big game of hide and seek. Their only reward, besides the devotion of their partners, is the chance to play with a favorite tennis ball or Kong tug.


Sgt. Robert Smith and Zorro from the Amtrak K-9 unit. Sgt. Robert Smith and Zorro from the Amtrak K-9 unit. Last week members of the Metropolitan Dog Club were invited to mingle with Amtrak’s elite canine teams at Penn Station. We saw the wonderful rapport between dog and handler, learned about their training program and got a glimpse at the amazing work this new breed of canine cop does to ensure the safe and swift passage of millions of pedestrians through our busy rail system.

We watched conventional explosives dog, Leon, a Czech import German Shepherd, locate a planted back pack while vapor wake dogs, Zorro and Molly, both black Labs, found human decoys in the Penn rotunda. The dog teams train every day at rotating Amtrak locations and in ever-morphing scenarios to keep their skills fresh and adaptable. No one can predict where the next threat will come from. Amtrak’s K-9 crew will be prepared.

Equally amazing, during the evening, not once did any Amtrak dog needle-nose the pepperoni or cheese on our aromatic antipasto tray. These super sniffers are only interested in doing their job. After years of experience, some like Leon, now seven, have evolved a sense of independence. While the guests were arriving, Leon automatically swept the room, checking everyone’s purse without being told.

“Leon is Mr. Detail. You can’t rush him,” said Sgt. Karen Schrof, his handler, “I’m his chauffeur. I hold his toy. If he ever learns how to drive, I’ll be out of work.” She was only joking because it’s the handler’s ability to read change in her dog’s behavior that makes this type of security so effective. Handlers learn to think and look “outside the box” to recognize what their dog is trying to tell them.

Few dispute man’s best friend’s olfactory sensibilities. Dogs have been known to detect nitroglycerin in the tens of parts per billion. “We smell the stew, whereas dogs discern each ingredient,” stated Sgt. Robert Smith, Zorro’s handler. He explained that Amtrak’s canine candidates are bred and trained via Auburn University’s Canine Detection Research Institute (CDRI) in Alabama. The puppies come from the finest sporting and detection dog blood lines. A strong hunting instinct is a desired trait.

Amiable sporting breeds like Labrador Retrievers blend easily in crowds and are less likely than pointy-eared breeds to intimidate travelers. Rex, a German Shorthaired Pointer is a vapor wake dog. He approaches the task with his breed’s trademark enthusiasm and when still, sizes you up with a friendly but knowing gaze.

At 12 weeks of age, Auburn pups that show potential are sent to prison, where they are socialized, trained and loved 24/7 by inmates who continue to cultivate their toy drive. Prison is an ideal environment because the slippery floors simulate stations, and the pups get accustomed to the coming and goings of strangers. At a year old, the pups return to CDRI where their snozzes are fine-tuned to detect up to 20 explosives.

Standard training at the Auburn facility with their new handler lasts about ten weeks but vapor wake recruits stay several weeks longer. Next, the dogs are acclimated at their assigned location getting used to train rides, stairs and escalators. Did you know there are six different types of escalators at Penn Station?

Amtrak dogs live with their handlers while active and when retired. The bond between pooch and police officer transcends a working relationship. Amtrak K-9s get the best of care, even custom booties to protect their paws from rock salt. Sgt. Schrof, an EMT and Red Cross instructor teaches canine first-aid. She brought along her realistic Husky demo dog but has also designed a more graphic model of a dog with multiple wounds that spouts artificial blood to teach handlers canine triage and to desensitize them to their dog being wounded. “Our job is to go into harm’s way so we must be ready to help our partners,” remarked Sgt Schrof.

With years training and handling drug, bomb and mine detector dogs in the military, Paul Eldridge, U.S. Army retired, is the Amtrak canine trainer in NYC. He comes to Penn Station with a strong German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois background but now appreciates the expertise of the sporting dog sleuths too.

Amtrak K-9s are the first line of defense for America’s railways. Trainer Eldridge believes whole heartedly in this comprehensive explosive detector dog program. These unassuming dogs can scan and clear the perimeter and interior of a huge area quickly without the public being inconvenienced or even realizing. “There is nothing out there that can match what they do,” Eldridge declared, “Dogs are the best technology we have” – Are you listening, TSA Airport Security?

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Honey” #94048 a gorgeous, purebred Siberian Husky came in as a thin, bedraggled stray in April. As shown here, she has become the BFF of a shelter staff member but still waits for a loving home. Hopefully an experienced Husky person will see this photo. This young male Min Pin mix #94401 came in as a stray too.

Cats: “Pristine” #20875- white goddess; “Mary Jane” #20842- gray tabby-both FeLV/FIV negative.

Male Dogs: Pekingese; “Diesel” #94232-Rottie found at the landfill; “Reggie” #94365- Cairn mix; “Fenster” #94330- Boxer mix.

Female Dogs: “Mae”-Pit pup discarded in a plastic bag and her playmate-“Mona Lisa”.

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