How Dogs Become Awesome Bomb Sniffing Dogs

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Because my imagination is trapped within the confines of my human pea brain, I always giggle to myself when I see dogs sniff anything and everything they run into. But dogs have 50 times more olfactory cells than we do! Of course they would put it to good use. And of course our human pea brains would put a dog's nose to good use in finding bombs. How do we train man's best friends to find explosives?

Smithsonian Mag has a in-depth piece about the education of explosive detection canines (or EDCs or really, just bomb dogs) that is just fascinating. It takes a look at how, why and for what MSA Security, an elite academy, trains its dogs.

Most of the dogs that go through MSA Security's school are a year to a year and a half old (having spent their first year training in Puppies Behind Bars). The dogs are trained to sniff different items like luggage, suitcases, bicycles, cars, concrete blocks and more—the idea is to train where the dog should smell for things just as much as what they're smelling for. Smithsonian Mag says:

Strictly speaking, the dog doesn’t smell the bomb. It deconstructs an odor into its components, picking out just the culprit chemicals it has been trained to detect. Roberts likes to use the spaghetti sauce analogy. “When you walk into a kitchen where someone is cooking spaghetti sauce, your nose says aha, spaghetti sauce. A dog’s nose doesn’t say that. Instinctively, it says tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, onion, oregano.” It’s the handler who says tomato sauce, or, as it happens, bomb.


Impressive! The dogs gain their understanding of smells by sniffing identical cans in a grid. Stuff that is associated with explosives (dynamite, TNT, Semtex, powders, component in C4, etc.) are put in random cans and the dog is instructed to sit down when it smells such chemicals. It works better than anything! The government has tried to build robots to do a dog's job but it's pretty hard to invent something better than a dog. Their nose extends from the nostril to the back of the throat, they differentiate breathing and smelling and 35% of a dog's brain is assigned for smelling while humans only have 5% set aside for smell. They're smelling machines.

Smithsonian Mag discovered that the best dog breeds for becoming bomb dogs are German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers. Golden Retrievers are actually the best smellers but they're too smart to go through bomb sniffing school. In any case, the bomb dogs usually work for 8 or 9 years with the same handler. It's an elite gig. You can read more about bomb dogs and their success stories here. Trust me, you'll enjoy it. [Smithsonian Mag, Image Credit: Reed Young]