When New York went on high alert last week for a possible terrorist attack on the city's subway system, police officers beefed up patrols, bag searches were increased and -- perhaps most importantly -- the best noses in the business were on the job.
"For explosive-type detection, canines are the absolute best," said Mark Miller, president of Executive Protection Systems, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army chemical corps and has worked with the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court on disaster and terrorism preparedness and security.
Dogs in the Canine Enforcement Program of U.S. Customs and Border Protection already guard the nation's airports, 73 different seaports and 69 Border Patrol stations -- the largest number of such teams of any federal law enforcement agency. A separate program will boost their ranks even further, as teams begin training this month for deployment in 10 mass transit and commuter rail systems, an expansion of the Transportation Security Administration's National Explosive Detection Canine Team Program. Customs and Border Protection dogs and TSA dogs complement police dogs and those used by local jurisdictions.
The dogs are trained to catch chemicals, explosives, huge stashes of currency, agriculture products, narcotics and even concealed humans at the borders.
Most dogs in the program are from the sports breeds, including retrievers, shepherds and mixed breeds. There's also the Beagle Brigade, a group of smaller dogs that interact with the public in the nation's airports. Passive-response dogs sit when they detect an odor so they work around people. Dogs trained to find narcotics will bite and scratch containers when they catch a whiff of illegal substances.
"The philosophy is one dog, one type of odor, one type of response," said Herbert H. Herter, branch chief for canine enforcement with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, based at Newark Liberty International Airport. "A narcotic dog will only be a narcotic dog."
From October 2004 through mid-September, canines at Newark Airport discovered 240 pounds of hash, 345 pounds of cocaine, 8 pounds of heroin, $3,604,185 in undeclared cash, 873 plants and 432 pounds of meat, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection records.
"Our primary mission is anti-terror," Herter said. "But our mission still is to identify and detect narcotics coming into the country also."
That mission extends to other substances as well. Take Lexi, a beagle-foxhound mix who patrols the international baggage claim area of Newark Liberty International Airport as an agriculture detector dog. Following a recent flight from Milan, Italy, she sniffed forbidden figs and apples stuffed in a suitcase -- all in just a few seconds while strolling around the baggage carousel and being admired by passengers and airport staff.
And then there's Mr. Pickles, a pit bull trained to detect narcotics. He works behind the scenes, dashing across luggage as it moves along a conveyor belt from incoming flights. When he detects the scent of synthetic cocaine used in his training, Mr. Pickles scratches and gnaws at the suitcase where it's hiding.
Dogs also work at the Port of Newark, checking cargo containers that come into the country. They can detect odors buried deep underneath other things and mixed among other scents. "The dog can smell into something provided it's porous," Herter said.