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Local canine response team aided Boston bombing probe

The dust had barely settled when Gerry O’Sullivan and Dolly arrived in Massachusetts the morning of April 16, several hours after a pair of bomb blasts during the Boston Marathon killed three people and wounded hundreds.

O’Sullivan is a senior special agent canine handler for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, based in Buffalo. K-9 Dolly, his five-year-old partner, is a yellow Labrador retriever with the job title of Explosives Detection Canine and a dog tag-sized badge on her collar.

Throughout that week, they were part of the investigation that culminated with the death of one suspected terrorist and capture of another. They returned to Buffalo Monday morning.

“In my 24 years, it was the most unbelievable response I have ever seen. Every police officer within the greater New England area wanted to be there,” O’Sullivan said during an interview Friday.

Details about the work performed by O’Sullivan and Dolly remain confidential, however.

“Dolly worked all the crime scenes … searching for evidence,” was about all he could say.

An explosives expert in his own right, O’Sullivan is trained in identifying post-blast evidence.

“We know what to look for. We know the difference between a car part and an explosive device,” he said. “You can waste a lot of time if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

The two were among ATF resources sent to Boston, traveling aboard the local bureau’s National Response Team Bomb Truck. “We were activated within hours of the incident,” said Frank Christiano, special agent in charge of the Buffalo field office.

O’Sullivan said they arrived at 4 a.m. and attended a briefing three hours later. From that point on, work days averaged 16 hours – at least for O’Sullivan.

“Nobody minded,” O’Sullivan said. “Nobody wanted to leave.”

But for Dolly, trained to detect up to 19,000 different types of explosive compounds, her time on the job is environmentally driven; she can work up to an hour at a time.

“The weather in Boston was absolutely perfect … for deploying the canines,” O’Sullivan said.

A product of the Puppies Behind Bars Foundation, Dolly was raised by inmates in a minimum-security federal prison in Connecticut before spending 16 weeks training at the ATF’s National Canine Academy in Virginia. O’Sullivan also trained with her before they began working together in the summer of 2009.

The ATF uses Labrador retrievers, exclusively, largely because of their docile demeanor.

“We don’t want an aggressive dog by a … possible explosive device for obvious reasons,” O’Sullivan said. Labs are hardy, adaptable to the environment and easy to train, he added.

Dolly also is part of his family, which includes 13-year-old Cliff, another yellow lab who was O’Sullivan’s K-9 partner when the agent first became a handler in 2002.

While Cliff is free to simply be a pampered pet in his retirement, O’Sullivan and Dolly train together daily, year-round. “It keeps the dog sharp,” O’Sullivan explained.

Training is food-driven, so that when Dolly detects an explosive compound – signaling O’Sullivan by suddenly sitting upright – she’s rewarded with a piece of dry dog food. Her daily diet – two cups of dry food – is meted out as she responds to spent shell casings and other materials that O’Sullivan uses.

And Dolly faces an annual recertification process that will, coincidentally, be held in Boston this year.

O’Sullivan reflected on visiting the stricken city in its darkest hours.

“The citizens of Boston were just outstanding,” he said, describing how residents dropped off food and drinks for law enforcement officers guarding the perimeters of the crime scene.

“They were very, very supportive. That whole city came together,” O’Sullivan said.