Just understanding that dogs are smart isn’t enough, however. At North Carolina State University, Barbara Sherman, a specialist in animal behaviour, and David Dorman, a veterinary toxicologist, are focusing on coming up with tests that can predict which dogs will be the best bomb dogs, in the way that the SATs help predict which students will do well at college. Good attributes of a working dog might be factors such as intelligence and motivation. “Some of these factors we could try to measure directly, some we’re not able to measure directly,” says Dorman, who is wearing a red tie adorned with dogs. “It’s very similar to our student situation.”
The tests include seemingly simple tasks, such as how a dog reacts to climbing industrial stairs (many dogs don’t like staircases you can see through to the ground), or measuring their reaction to gunshots. The researchers will also soon be testing the dogs in a new lab equipped with cameras, speakers that pipe in white noise, and odour sources. The room, which includes obstacles for the dogs to work around, will test to see which dogs work best on their own, or “off leash”, and which can create a good spatial map – not something that has traditionally been looked for or rewarded in working military dogs – but could prove critical for bomb dogs.
But as researchers begin to understand more about the canine mind, there are also signs that, like humans, they are susceptible to conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That means that on top of all of the intelligence tests, physical training and scent trials, researchers must also try to identify dogs that are resilient, even when faced with prolonged exposure to explosions and gunfire. For example, in one test, to measure “resiliency” in a war zone, the researchers study the dogs’ reaction to the sound of a gunshot. Why is this important? “You might be less motivated to be an enthusiastic participant in hunting for olfactants if you’re afraid you’re going to be blown up,” says Sherman.
If all goes well, the first 2.0 detector dogs will be deployed in Afghanistan early next year. The ultimate question, however, is whether these new and improved bomb dogs are more effective. Albuquerque says that for now, the best proof lies with the troops: When Albuquerque first spoke with Marines at the beginning of the programme, they were reluctant to even consider dogs. Their attitude quickly changed when the dogs started finding IEDs, and in a show of respect, early dogs in the programmme, like Cann, were named after fallen Marines (Cann was named for Staff Sergeant Adam Cann, a dog handler killed in Iraq; Cann, the dog, is now retired and living with a former Marine).
Marines, who once doubted the utility of the dogs, also now volunteer to carry provisions for the canines. “They’re not carrying water because they like the dog; they’ll leave the dog behind,” says Albuquerque. “If they’re carrying extra water, they believe in it and it works.”