Florida cruise port brings in bomb-sniffing dogs

— -- PORT CANAVERAL - Meet Lilly: She's 4 years old, blond and has a tattoo on her ear. And she's America's newest tool in the war on terrorism.

The yellow Labrador with a nose for bombs was one of two dogs assigned Thursday to start checking luggage of boarding cruise passengers at Port Canaveral.

Florida's largest cruise port is the first in the country to receive canine assistance from the Transportation Security Administration under recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission in its 2004 report.

"Ports used to be more concerned about theft and drug trafficking," said the facility's CEO, Stan Payne. "After 9/11, they started to focus on real threats to security.

"And for cruises, this is where the action is."

The TSA's K9 ranks already number 900, but they're deployed to 80 airports and 18 mass-transit stations.

Port Canaveral -- the home of seven ships in the Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Disney and Norwegian cruise lines -- was chosen after proposing the idea to the federal agency.

Two officers from the Port Canaveral Police Department will direct the dogs as passengers board.

They'll also be available on other occasions, such as when packages left unattended at a terminal are deemed "suspicious."

Security officials think explosives pose valid threats to the port, with large ships such as the Disney Dream capable of carrying 4,000 passengers.

John Daly, the top TSA official at the Orlando and Sanford international airports, said adding dogs was just one way to keep up with "the bad guys, who get smarter with time."

"Having the dogs here really cuts down on the response time from what it was before," Daly said. "We recognize the value that Port Canaveral plays to the local economy."

Lilly and her cohort, a German shepherd named Emil, went through 10 weeks of training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. They were taught to sniff for various types of explosives and to alert their handlers. Drugs are not their forte.

But Lilly has even broader experience.

She served for a year in Afghanistan, where she was outfitted with video equipment and sent down roadways to sniff for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

After developing skin irritation and breathing issues, she was discharged from the Army and reassigned to the TSA.

Her ear is tattooed with an identification number: P006, a sort of doggy dog tag.

During a demonstration for the media Thursday at the port's Terminal 5, Lilly correctly sniffed out a black bag containing inert training materials.

She was rewarded with a chew toy.

"She can only make one mistake, and it wouldn't be a good mistake," said her handler, Port Canaveral Police Officer Mike Veina.

"You can't have dogs missing bombs, so the training is every day and very intense."

Near the gaggle of journalists and dogs gathered for the demonstration, people waited to board the Carnival Sensation for a cruise to the Bahamas.

"I don't do drugs or alcohol," said one of them, Jean Abram of St. Louis. "So I'm glad the dogs are sniffing because someone could hide something in their bag and kill me."