By Frank James
Creating bomb-sniffing dogs takes the right training regime performed by qualified instructors with successful track records. And this kind of information can be readily checked beforehand.
So it's curious the Navy found itself having to rescue dogs from a subcontractor that military officials accuse of not only failing to train the animals to detect explosives but of not prooerly caring for them as well.
The Virginia Pilot newspaper which serves the Hampton Roads area, home to the Norfolk Navy Base, the world's largest naval base, has followed this troubling story in which the dogs were said to be found in "deplorable" condition. They were malnourished, for instance. An excerpt:
The task probably seemed innocuous enough when a small team of U.S. Navy personnel accepted it last fall. They would trek out to a private security contractor in Chicago to pick up 49 dogs, then transport them to a nearby military base.
But what they found when they arrived was shocking, according to internal Navy e-mails: dirty, weak animals so thin that their ribs and hip bones jutted out.
The dogs were supposed to have begun working months earlier to sniff out explosives at Navy installations across the country, including several in Hampton Roads. At least that was the plan when, for the first time, the Navy decided to hire an outside contractor to supply K-9s and handlers to help protect dozens of its bases and ships.
But when the dog-handler teams showed up for work last spring, they couldn't find planted explosives during military certification tests, according to the Navy. So the bases sent them back to the contractor, Securitas Security Services USA.
The Navy decided to cut its losses and ended the contract in July, eventually agreeing to buy the 49 Securitas dogs and train and handle them on its own. It sent its team to get the K-9s on Oct. 5.
The Navy declined to discuss what its personnel discovered that day, but according to e-mails obtained by The Virginian-Pilot, the animals appeared starved, neglected and dramatically different from three months earlier, when they failed the military's certification tests.
The e-mails say the Navy picked the dogs up at a warehouse. In one message, a civilian official described their condition as "deplorable." In another, he wrote that he feared the dogs would have died if the military hadn't come to get them.
In fact, the Navy said later, at least two of the dogs did not survive. Several others were deemed too sick to ever be of use. Nearly a year after they were supposed to have begun working, the remaining K-9s still are not patrolling Navy installations as intended.
Securitas disputes that the dogs were poorly trained and neglected. The company says it is owed more than $6 million for its services and for the animals. The Navy appears to have gained little from the deal besides the dogs, which Securitas bought for roughly $465,000, according to the owner of the kennel that sold them.
The Navy wouldn't disclose what it has actually paid out under the botched contract; officials would say only that they're still working to determine exactly how much the Navy owes Lockheed Martin, the defense giant that subcontracted the K-9 work to Securitas.
The story of the contract and its outcomes - wasted resources, the long delay in getting the dogs to work and the severe neglect they allegedly suffered - highlight the risk that accompanies the growing use of private companies to fill jobs that the military used to do itself.
Back in 2004, I reported for the Chicago Tribune on how the growing demand for bomb-sniffing dogs following 9/11 was straining the ability to produce enough of them and causing some dubious operations to spring up.
I'm not accusing Securitas of being one of them. I don't know. But I do know there have been documented problems over the years with companies promoting themselves as bomb dog trainers and not being able to deliver on their promises.
An excerpt from my 2004 story:
Dogs coming out of top facilities--including Auburn and the Customs and Border Protection Bureau in Front Royal, Va.--are deemed highly skilled. But the great demand has caused some unscrupulous or unwitting providers to market as bomb sniffers dogs that really should be just pets. And that has some in the field worried.
Effective bomb-sniffing dogs aren't cheap. The best ones can cost $13,000. And experts are pushing for rigorous standards to weed out bogus detectors.
"I'm concerned that there's not a consistent quality product being put out there," said Lee Titus, director of the Canine Enforcement Program for the Customs and Border Protection Bureau, part of the Homeland Security Department.
Titus recalled a recent demonstration he witnessed by a private company that claimed it had trained dogs to find chemical weapons.
It was bad enough when some dogs missed the suspect packages, he said. But it got worse. One dog that detected the package failed to sit as dogs are trained to do when they find something. Instead, the dog picked up the package and presented it to its handler.
"If my dog is supposedly trained to find a chemical weapon of mass destruction, I don't think I want him to pick it up and bring it back to me," Titus said.
In some cases, the problem isn't that the dogs aren't well-trained at bomb detection but that they were schooled to find other substances, like drugs.
A cardinal rule of the nation's best trainers is to teach bomb dogs to seek only explosives. That could keep dogs from getting confused.
"I've been to football games where they told me there was a bomb dog and I personally trained [that dog as] a drug dog," said Thomas "Ed" Hawkinson, director of Auburn's program. "I knew the dog. He came and played with me. Yet it's down there imitating a bomb dog.
"What kind of reliability do you have on that?" asked Hawkinson, who formerly headed the Secret Service's dog training. "There are just people out there doing this looking for the homeland defense bucks."
William Lavelle, whose California-based company, Detection Support Services, provides bomb-sniffing dogs, was contracted by the Army to provide dogs to troops in Iraq. He obtained dogs from six suppliers. The Army returned the dogs from all but one of Lavelle's suppliers.
"Some of the dogs were pretty bad," said Lavelle, who is a board member of the relatively new International Explosive Detection Dog Association, a group pushing for industry guidelines. The group plans to field test its training and assessment guidelines for dogs and handlers in coming months.
Bomb-dog experts say a Maryland man convicted last year in federal court for fraud is the poster boy for what's wrong. Russell Lee Ebersole was sentenced to the maximum 6 1/2 years in prison for providing the federal government with faux bomb-sniffing dogs.
Federal officials tested the dogs, which Ebersole initially trained as drug dogs. The dogs failed to detect 50 pounds of dynamite and 15 pounds of plastic explosives hidden in vehicles.