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ASU lab training bomb-sniffing dogs to detect IEDs

Humans have long turned to the dog for its nose. We use dogs for hunting, tracking missing people and searching for drugs at the border. But, finding Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) has posed a challenge to bomb-detecting dogs. The Navy is funding research to change that.

Rohan is a small, black and brown shelter dog with perky ears and intent eyes. He’s at the Canine Science Lab on the campus of Arizona State University, getting ready for his test.

“All right so he stuck his nose in, that’s triggering the start of a trial. Now he had an itch, so that trial got cancelled,” researcher Nathan Hall said.

Hall is watching as Rohan puts his pointy, black nose into a machine that can present thousands of scent mixtures — everything from vanilla to ammonium nitrate. It’s called an olfactometer.

“Now he’s triggering the new trial. The odor is being presented,” he said.

As Rohan keeps his nose in the olfactometer, a computer directs scents to an odor port where he can sniff them. If he smells the target odor he keeps his nose in. If he doesn’t, he takes his nose out.

“He’s keeping his nose in, and he gets food for that. That was a correct hit; that was a hit response. The odor was there; he made the correct indication,” Hall said.

Hall is part of a team studying how to train dogs to identify a wide variety of ingredients that could be used to make bombs. Clive Wynne directs the study, which is funded by the Office of Naval Research.

“We’re now asking dogs not just to find a needle in a haystack. Now the problem is more like saying to the dog, ‘we need you to find any sharp object in the haystack,’” Wynne said.

The dogs not only have to detect whether explosive ingredients are present, they also have to determine if the agents they smell could combine to form an explosive mixture. Wynne said history shows that some of those ingredients don’t seem dangerous at all.

“I grew up in Britain, and when I was a child there was a series of terrorist attacks on Britain, and I only recently learned that the critical explosive fuel was confectioner sugar. Now, would there be a purpose to train dogs to find confectioner’s sugar? Obviously not,” Wynne said.

But Wynne said the dogs need to learn that when combined with other elements, even sugar could be used in a bomb.

“We want the dogs to grasp the concept of ‘This might go bang.’  And we do that not by showing the dog one explosive and one not explosive smell, but by showing the dog thousands of different explosive smells and thousands of different non-explosive smells.”

It’s a much different approach than just teaching dogs to detect explosives like C4 or TNT. Joong Kim is a program manager with the Office of Naval Research. He said dogs used by the Marines are having a difficult time finding roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Their components can be in a different ratio, a different quality, and that does seem to have some effect on the performance of the canine,” Kim said.

Kim said the big problem is that IEDs are just that — improvised and completely inconsistent.

“That variation is actually the challenging part of being able to identify and locate those threats.”

Wynne said Rohan’s nose is more than a thousand times more powerful than a human’s nose.

“United States research agencies spent billions over the last 15 years trying to create a technical replacement for the nose of the dog, and at the end of all that they just had to admit ‘No, we cannot get close.’”

Wynne thinks his team can develop bomb sniffing dogs that can detect IEDs at a fraction of that price. All it takes is patience and a little positive reinforcement.

Jimmy Jenkins was a producer and senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2021.