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Trained to sniff out a threat
At annual session, 11 bomb-detecting dogs earn recertification

An explosive training aid is hidden in the bottom cabinet behind the bar in a Ralph Wilson Stadium suite.

It takes Dolly, a yellow Labrador retriever and explosives-detection canine, only 16 seconds to enter the suite and sniff out the location of the explosive compound, after racing from cabinet to cabinet and rubbing her nose against each one. When she finds it, she suddenly sits, waiting to be fed her reward.

She makes it look easy, but it isn't. Dolly is among a select group of dogs chosen to uncover explosives.

How challenging is the work?

The canines are trained to detect up to 19,000 different explosive compounds from five different families of explosives -- and that's just during their initial training in Virginia.

Dolly was one of 11 dogs that gathered at the stadium Thursday for the last day of an annual three-day Northeast explosive-detection canine recertification, hosted this year by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Buffalo, where Dolly is assigned.

Canines from Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Virginia were recertified, along with three dogs from Western New York: Dolly and two canines who work out of the Erie County Sheriff's and U.S. Marshal's offices.

Recertification is required of the canines every year following their initial training, which consists of a 16-week program at the ATF Canine Training Center in Front Royal, Va. The first six weeks of that training focus on imprinting explosive odors, by setting up scenarios involving vehicles, open-field searches and article searches, said Gerry O'Sullivan, Dolly's special agent canine handler.

The canines are only half the team. Their handlers are just as important, and they go through the final 10 weeks of initial training with the dogs. A relationship needs to be built between the canine and the handler for greatest efficiency, O'Sullivan said.

"After one week, they try to match up the dogs with the handlers," he said, "based on whether we have pets at home, and whether they're male or female."

Handlers take their work partners home with them each night, where they live as domestic pets. The food system remains strict and analogous with the food system at work, O'Sullivan said, for purposes of quick explosive detection.

The recertification began Tuesday at the First Niagara Center and continued Wednesday at the University at Buffalo before concluding at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"They're on a strict food-reward system," O'Sullivan said.

Nine aluminum cans were set up for the dogs outside the entrance to the stadium Thursday as a warm-up drill before their examinations. Explosive training aids were placed inside a few of the cans. The dog's handler then led the dog around the cans.

The canines were systematic -- sniffing each can, suddenly sitting upright once they found an explosive, then jumping back up to dig into the treats presented by the handler.

Inside the examination area, a similar scenario was set up, using U.S Postal Services boxes rather than cans.

More than 400 canines globally have used the ATF training program. Through a contract with the U.S. State Department, countries overseas with high terrorism threats often send police officers and interpreters to the training center in Virginia and then take dogs back with them.

"They come from Thailand, Indonesia, Jordan. It's actually the number one most requested program through the State Department," said Cody Monday, lead instructor at the National Canine Training Operation Center.

The dogs are certified in both commercial and military explosives, as well as homemade explosives, which more terrorists are beginning to use.

Dolly, four years old, has worked as an explosive detector at Super Bowls, NASCAR and VIP events. Charlie Brown, a canine from Connecticut at the event, has watched over University of Connecticut football games and has protected presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama.