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A Dog's Life: Maple Ridge trained canine sniffing out drugs, bombs, and bugs

Kona, one of four chocolate labs employed by Metro Vancouver Transit, and her handler Aaron Chan, regularly sweep the SkyTrain system for explosives. - PNG file photo
Kona, one of four chocolate labs employed by Metro Vancouver Transit, and her handler Aaron Chan, regularly sweep the SkyTrain system for explosives.
— image credit: PNG file photo

by Kelly Sinoski
Special to The TIMES

Ron Field walks backward, watching closely as the German shepherd, Razor, sniffs the mirrors, doors and tires of a battered white Chrysler LeBaron.

An occasional whine escapes as he searches, but as soon as he reaches the front right light casing, Razor abruptly sits. He has found the planted explosives.

His trainer is pleased, but Razor is more interested in his reward: a bone-shaped plastic toy that he immediately clenches in his jaws before getting someone to throw for him.

"How strong is a dog's nose? It's anybody's guess," said Werner Hader, president of the Maple Ridge-based company Western K9 Security, which trains dogs to sniff out everything from explosives and narcotics to bed bugs.

"We hear stories sometimes and it just blows us away."

Razor is among the latest batch of sniffer dogs being trained by the private security company, located on a nine-acre compound in the east Maple Ridge neighbourhood of Whonnock.

One day, he will likely be sold or requested for his explosives-detecting nose, perhaps for use on a ferry or transit bus.

His kennel mate, Ava, a three-year-old golden lab, for instance, was shipped out recently to a northern B. C. company to sniff out drugs and alcohol at local camps.

The need for sniffer dogs, and their handlers, has been growing since the U. S. terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and, in some cases, because of Transport Canada regulations.

Canada is not at the same level as the United States, but dogs are being sought here for transit, ferries, airports, cruise ships, concerts and even hospitals - where dogs like English springer Spaniel, Angus, are being used to detect infectious outbreaks such as C. difficile.

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CAPTION: Angus, a two-year-old English Springer Spaniel, is working at Vancouver General Hospital as the world's only C-difficile sniffing canine. (PNG file photo)

Dogs are also used at watercraft inspection stations in Alberta to detect zebra and quagga mussel infestations, and at the border to sniff out drugs, guns, money and food, plant and animal products.

Private security firm Securiguard had only one detection dog in 2001 but now handles more than half a dozen K-9 units, which are used to inspect cargo at the cruise ship terminal, Vancouver International Airport, parkades and remote camps. Director Adrian Nelson said the company is buying more dogs as the need for detection increases, especially in narcotics and explosives.

"I definitely see there's an upward trend ," he said. "We feel the canines are probably the best counter measure to deal with terrorism in public spaces at the moment. Their ability and sheer presence is going to make a difference."

Dogs trained in narcotics and explosives must be validated by B. C.'s Justice Institute, which requires minimum performance standards for dogs involved in security work in both "protection " - including human scent detection - and signature odour scent work, including narcotics or explosives, according to the institute's website.

But first they must go through the training, which typically takes six to eight months, as dogs must be trained to sift through thousands of odours to find what they're seeking. German shepherds, Labs and Belgian Malinois are preferred for sniffer dogs because of their high drive, such as a need to chase and get a ball, while springer Spaniels and Jack Russells are also trainable.

Their breeding, though, doesn't necessarily make them a slam dunk for the specialized job, Hader said, noting only five to 10 per cent are chosen. Out of four dogs recently assessed by Securiguard, for instance, only one made the cut.

Hader and his wife Janet say they can tell right away if a canine has potential based on its determination and tenacity. If a dog doesn't immediately focus on a toy, it's strike one, and if they don't chase it, strike two. Razor, for instance, raced out of the kennel, grabbed a stick and refused to give it up.

"This is what makes a bomb dog ," Janet Hader said. "He will do everything for his (toy). This is the kind of desire we are looking for... that obsessive behaviour in a dog to get whatever he wants."

Dogs must also meet other factors such as ensuring they are comfortable on stairs, platforms or in tight spaces, said Eddie MacVeigh, a trainer at Securiguard.

If they meet all the criteria, the dogs are considered a huge asset, especially since they can differentiate between a variety or odours, such as those involved in making bombs.

'The reason why dogs are such valuable assets is because of their scent discrimination ," MacVeigh said. "Bad guys go to a lot of measures to mask odours."

Hader cited a lab sold to a company in Smithers to sniff out narcotics who refused to budge from a parcel of salmon wrapped in plastic wrap. The handler found a pound of hash inside the fish. In another case, a man contracted Western K-9 to sniff out a used car he had bought to ensure there were no drugs concealed in it because he wanted to cross the border.

Meanwhile, B. C. Ferries has used sniffer dogs for random checks since 2009 following changes to Transport Canada's domestic regulations. "We do it randomly and don't offer a schedule because that would tip your hand to doing something untoward ," spokeswoman Deborah Marshall said. "It's all part of our security procedures."

Metro Vancouver's Transit police, meanwhile, got their first two sniffer dogs in 2009 to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics and now have four dogs that sweep the transit system daily for explosives. The dogs, all chocolate labs, usually focus on the SkyTrain but are often called to search suspicious packages on local buses or SeaBus, TransLink spokeswoman Anne Drennan said.

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CAPTION: Kona, one of four chocolate labs employed by Metro Vancouver Transit, and her handler Aaron Chan, regularly sweep the SkyTrain system for explosives. (PNG file photo)

The dogs, who must meet provincial and national standards as well as those established by the RCMP, include Kona, who came from a Kamloops breeder and was "lauded for her skills " during training in Victoria.

The boost in the canine force is primarily related to major world events, Drennan said, but no explosives have been found on the system in the past eight years despite checking "literally hundreds of suspicious packages." A makeshift bomb, however, was spotted by a passenger in November 2012 on the tracks on the Expo Line between Scott Road and Gateway stations.

"Transit systems around the world have been targeted, for terrorist acts in particular ," Drennan said. "We're always cautioning people to be our eyes and ears if they see something. It's felt to be extremely important to have sniffer dogs to do routine sweeps as well as be called on for anything suspicious. Of course when something like (a terrorist attack) happens, there's an even more concerted effort to put the dogs out, more repetitively, during the time of high alert."

The transit dogs, as well as those trained by private security firms, are required to be validated regularly to ensure they don't lose their skills.

Western K-9 Security, which has been operating since 2007, has three trainers -- including Field -- who, as part of the training, conceal scented pads called "hides " in containers, vehicles or pallets that the dogs have to sniff out. Once they find the "hide ," they get a reward for their detective skills.

"They have to get rewards during the day. The dog thinks he is always finding things ," Janet said. "You have to train them for the value of their nose."

Hader says sniffer dogs can't be used to detect newer drugs, like fentanyl, because it's not illegal. Bedbugs are a growing concern as they become more resistant to pesticides, he said, noting he got a call from France for bed bug sniffer dogs because their original dog supplier in the U. S. had switched over to explosives.

"You can teach a dog to sniff out anything that has an odour ," Hader said. "It's in them. They either have it or they don't."

If they don't, their fate is sealed.

Most are sent back with the people who brought them or they become protectors. Some, like the Haders' black German shepherd, Ice, are kept as pets.

- Kelly Sinoski is a reporter with The Vancouver Sun

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