Explosives Sweeps

k9-explosive-sweepsIn light of the heightened risk of terrorism, more companies are turning to canine teams to detect explosives. At least 25 new companies offering canine services have been established since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and countless law enforcement agencies have added or expanded canine units since 9/11. K9 Solutions Center has been in business since 2000. The expansion of canine services makes it more important than ever for security managers to understand the basics of the explosives-detection dog.

Some of the issues security managers must consider include how canine services work, what types of canine teams are available, what sort of training canine teams undergo, how certification programs work, and what skills a good canine team must have.

Canine Basics

The concept of using dogs to detect certain substances is quite old. It has long been known that dogs can be trained to recognize a particular odor. If a dog is taught to alter its behavior when certain odors denoting specific substances are found, a dog and its handler can be a formidable team. Dogs are more capable than any other detection system or method because they can accurately detect a wide variety of materials. No one really knows how sensitive a dog's nose is, but scientists note that a dog's sensitivity to odor is vastly greater than that of a human.

Anyone choosing to use dogs in lieu of equipment must remember that they are, like humans, biological systems. They must eat, sleep, and rest. Canines are also affected by temperature and humidity. Their ability to handle a specific job may also be affected by the size and height of the area to be searched. Occasionally, dogs have bad days; an experienced handler will recognize when the dog is not performing to expectations.

Security managers must also be aware that no matter how good the team is, some explosives may be undetectable. For example, "bottle bombs" are gas-pressure devices that are almost impossible to detect. The explosive uses some sort of substance--such as dry ice--that turns into a gas, building up pressure in the container and eventually exploding. In its inert state, it emits no odor detectable by a dog. There are also some obscure explosives combinations that the dogs cannot recognize because they have not been exposed to them, and the materials themselves are not controlled, or noted as an explosive until combined.

Another concern is booby traps, which are not unknown in high-profile searches. These can run the gamut from live electrical wires to bear traps. Dogs and their handlers may be caught unaware and injured by these devices or materials because canines cannot detect them, or the devices may remain undetected and undetonated at the site even after the search.

Given these limitations, even though the team has swept an area, it may not be free from explosive devices. To help limit this exposure, trained security personnel should conduct a manual search as a backup.


There are two primary methods for using explosives-detection canines in security management. The first is having a full-time canine team for facilities with a high level of risk. The second is the employment of a response team for lower risk facilities. Both the private sector and law enforcement provide this service.

Dedicated: There are many advantages to having dedicated full-time canine teams available. Dedicated teams will be familiar with the site, and the security manager will be familiar with the teams. Teams can be used proactively to screen deliveries, perform perimeter checks, evaluate abandoned packages, support dignitaries, and provide a high level of deterrence. However, the risk faced by most organizations does not justify the cost of having full-time, in-house canine units.

Response: The second option is to use an outside service, a company that specializes in canine explosives detection. Most security professionals rely on law enforcement teams that are dispatched as part of the response to a threat. This approach is normal, cost efficient, and meets most standards of care. But an organization should plan ahead to ensure the effectiveness of a local law enforcement response team.

Ideally, security managers should set up a tour and then run a security or counterterrorism exercise. These exercises should never include items planted by security for the dog to find. Such training drills should only be conducted by canine handlers. However, law enforcement teams are usually pleased to help during security drills because they provide realistic experience for the dogs. And if there is ever an incident, the company benefits because the law enforcement team knows the company and its property.


Training is critical whether the dog will serve in law enforcement or in a private capacity. Two major training issues pertain: whether a dog is cross-trained and how the training enhances the dog's capabilities.

Cross-Training: In the United States, most military and some law enforcement organizations employ dogs trained in both detection and patrol. This is known as "dual purpose" or "cross training" and is a cost-saving measure. Dual purpose training is effective if supported by an experienced training regimen.

Dual purpose dogs are rare in the private sector, due to potential liability and concerns about proficiency. One school of thought says that a cross-trained patrol dog is actually less likely to bite, but many of those who operate dog units have already gone to, or are in the process of going to, single-purpose dogs because they are believed to be more focused and less likely to bite. It is because of this perception that the liability exposure for dual-purpose dogs is still high.

One fairly recent type of cross-training mixes odors such as alcohol, drugs, and explosives in the dog's training. In some cases, the dog is expected to offer different responses to different scents. However, such cost cutting is considered to be reckless by most professionals. It is unreliable, requires the dog to recognize too many base odors, and creates confusion in response to alerts. This type of dog is called a contraband detection dog and was originally designed to be employed in schools. The concept has now migrated to other venues. K9 Solutions Center does not utilize contraband dogs in explosives services.

Capabilities: When selecting a company, one consideration is how teams have been trained. By asking a few basic questions, a client can assess the training. Security directors should first ask what weight range the team trains on. This issue is important, because the way scent behaves differs depending on the amount of substance present. It is almost guaranteed that a dog which trains on ounces will miss pounds. Likewise, a dog which trains on a few pounds may miss a larger device, such as an explosives-laden vehicle. We refer to this as odor thresholds. K9 Solutions Center trains on a wide odor threshold, meaning we go from less than an ounce to bulk hides.

Security directors should also ask how often scent materials are rotated. This question is critical, because the longer a particular substance is handled, the more it will start to smell like its container, the handler, or the dog. K9 Solutions Center will not hold any training aid for more than 6 months for this reason. The scent signature of the training aid can actually change or "shift" over time.

A simple way to evaluate this issue is to ask what people do with their old explosives. Typically, the only lawful ways to dispose of explosives for the private sector are to turn them over to law enforcement, contract with a hazardous materials disposal firm, or blow them up in training. Any of these methods are verifiable with minimum investigation. K9 Solutions Center works with an explosives supplier, who actually takes the old training aids in on "trade-in" when the new ones are purchased.

Asking about the experience and expertise of the people responsible for training and management is also important. Security managers should dig into the team's methods and should not hesitate to ask questions. Managers should ask for verification of credentials.

Also critical is how many different compounds a dog is trained to recognize. Worldwide, there are about 19,000 odors associated with explosives. Most of these odors fit into five general families of nitrate compounds and acid salts. Additionally, there are chlorates, peroxides, acids, and other obscure products.

A key assumption in canine training is that if a dog is trained in sample chemicals representing these families, the dog will indicate the presence of similar compounds. This statement is generally true, but the principle is not reliable in all circumstances. For instance, experience has shown that if a dog is trained on explosive "X", and he is also trained on explosive "Y", the dog may or may not indicate a mix of the two explosives. This mixed explosive "Z" should be treated as a new compound or a variant of the parent chemicals.

Similarly, a dog that is trained on smokeless powder "A" should, but may not, alert on smokeless powder "B". The more variation in exposure to compounds that the team has in training, the more probable it is that a dog will recognize the family of substances during a real emergency.

Security managers must also recognize that the number of odors present in a list of items for which the team is trained is not nearly as relevant as understanding what the list means. True understanding of what the dog can detect is directly tied to the trainer's understanding of what compounds actually are composed of. For instance, nitroglycerin is present in smokeless powders and some dynamites. RDX is present in A-5, C-4, Composition B, SEMTEX, and other explosives. Ammonium nitrate is present in binary explosives, ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO), watergels, and emulsions. A quality trainer will be able to provide a security manager with highly detailed information as to the true meaning of any list.


Numerous certification programs exist, and they differ dramatically. When security managers are examining government or law enforcement certifications, it is important to remember that many certifications are designed to focus on the mission of the particular agency. For instance, a dog working for a certain government agency may spend more training time on slow, methodical searches for the small amounts of explosives typically found at crime scenes rather than on short and fast searches that are required for explosive-laden delivery vehicle screening.

There is no overarching federal authority that governs the certification of detection dogs. Certification may be granted by a government agency, a private group, or a nonprofit organization. The certifying group is not as important as the security manager's confidence in the certification.

Choosing a Team

Which team is selected will depend on the issues already addressed as well as on the overall professionalism of the group. The teams should be professional, alert, and courteous at all times and must maintain a confident demeanor.

Another consideration is whether the canine detection team knows how to operate visibly and project a security presence. That's important because a person who is planning to place an explosive device may cancel the plan or pick another target if he or she finds out about the canine team's activities. Teams should not follow a set routine, as randomness will further confound a bomber's planning.

Also important are the company's business practices, such as insurance coverage. Canine companies should have workers' compensation and liability insurance.

Helping the Team

When the canine detection unit is called in during an emergency, the security manager should consider what the company's security team can do to facilitate the canine search. For example, the company's officers can ensure that the perimeter is secure, that access is being monitored, and that the canine handler is informed about any chemicals legally stored on the site.

Just as important, security managers should know what will not be helpful in an emergency. Managers must be patient. A typical two-story office building will take a few hours to completely sweep. A canine can only work for a certain period of time before it needs to rest, and a good search is not as fast as some people think. Before an emergency arises, managers must prioritize which areas they would like searched.

Full confidence in the capabilities of a canine explosives-detection team can only be acquired by spending time researching the provider and getting to know the team. Security managers who take the time to do that groundwork will have laid the foundation for a reliable search should the company need to go to the dogs in a crisis.