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Archive for Sunday, February 22, 2004

Super sniffers

Dogs trained to detect bombs, drugs, termites

February 22, 2004

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— The number on the back of the trading card is impressive. It's 257. That's not home runs hit. It's not touchdowns scored.

It's 257 pounds of marijuana found.

The face on the front of the card belongs to a dog named Buckshot. He now lives in Oklahoma.

Buckshot's trading card is attached to a wall in a laboratory at Auburn University in Alabama. Alongside it are the faces of other canine heroes -- Shane, Corky, Zoom and many others.

Most are German shepherds, Belgian Malinois or Labrador retrievers. Larry Myers, who owns the cards, said several other breeds are also used by law enforcement to detect drugs, explosives and signs of arson.

"No bulldogs, though," he said, laughing. "They can hardly breathe."

Myers is a professor in the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and one of the country's leading experts on canine detection. A doctor of veterinary medicine as well as a doctor of physiology, he's appeared as a witness both for the prosecution and the defense in hundreds of criminal trials across the country and has been interviewed by numerous national publications such as Popular Science and most recently on television's "60 Minutes."

In 1989, Myers founded the Auburn Canine Research Institute. The institute conducts research at Auburn University, and trains dogs, handlers, trainers and program managers for government agencies at a center in Anniston, Ala.

No longer associated with the institute, Myers is researching ways dogs can be used besides uncovering drugs and explosives.

"We're using dogs to discover mold in houses, which would make the building dangerous for someone to inhabit," he said. "They're very good at finding termites."

He's now doing research for agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture.

Myers is looking for ways to train dogs to detect chemicals in ponds that give catfish a bad flavor, a problem costing the industry $50 million per year.

Dogs also can help with cattle breeding. Using vaginal secretions from cows, Myers said, he's working to train dogs to tell farmers when the cow is ready for mating -- even quicker than a bull can. Once again, the research could mean millions to farmers.

Myers is working to discover how dogs do what they do, and how chemicals in a drug or hazardous material stand out to a dog. If Myers and other researchers could discover how animals identify odors, that knowledge could be used to produce artificial devices that do the same thing. For example, perhaps such a device could detect E. coli viruses in food.

Samples such as different tubes of pond water are placed in boxes, which are placed in holes in a wooden board. The samples are rotated for each repetition, and dogs are not allowed to see them being placed.

"When the dog finds the right sample," explains Auburn veterinary student Rebecca Robinson, "they are rewarded with something good to eat. They love snacks."

Detection dogs aren't always on top of their game.

"Dental tartar can have an effect," Myers said. "Really. Clean the teeth and you get an almost immediate recovery of smell. Dogs get allergies. They get colds."

"A dog's sense of smell is not forever," he said. "A variety of diseases can destroy the sense of smell."

Why dogs smell well

Dogs smell 1,000 to 100,000 times better than we do. Why? Well, humans and dogs both smell using the olfactory epithelium membrane, lined with receptors that transmit odor to the brain. But while people have about 40 million receptors, dogs have more than 200 million of them.

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