There are 1,000 K-9 dog teams working for the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) across the United States. The teams are assigned to airports, mass transit, train stations and other public transportation spots.
At the local Bush Intercontinental Airport there are a number of different K-9 teams on patrol at all hours of the day. Junior, an 11 year-old Belgian Malinois, has been working at Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) for seven years as a TSA Explosive Detection Canine, alongside his handler, TSA Inspector Domingo Morales. Junior has done a full tour of duty and is scheduled to retire next month.
Junior began his training where all 1,000 TSA K-9 canine dogs begin, training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Junior trained alongside Morales at Lackland before coming to IAH for on-the-job training. Morales said the Lackland K-9 training facility has a replica of an aircraft and airport terminal.
The dogs selected for the TSA K-9 program come from a variety of breeders. In fact, for a time, Lackland had a breeding program on site, until they could not keep up with the demand for new dogs. A few different types of dogs, including Labrador retrievers and German short hair pointers, are often selected for the K-9 program. Morales said that while all dogs have a keen sense of smell, these breeds are more familiar and comfortable to the public. He noted that humans can process up to 200 odors at one time, while canines can process up to 10,000 odors at one time.
Morales said that when the TSA is picking dogs for the program, they look for dogs to have “strong ambition and a specific drive to want to find what they are looking for.” Dogs who don’t succeed in the training at Lackland are put up for adoption. Morales said there is a long line of people waiting for the dogs who don’t complete the training program and that most retired K-9 canine dogs live with their handlers after retirement.
Morales, a retired Marine, said he loves working with dogs and has a background with explosives in the military. He says he has “the best job in the world and the best job in the TSA.” Morales noted that for one position as a handler, there will typically be hundreds of applicants and that many handlers are former members of the military who handled dogs during their military service. K-9 dogs live with their handlers full time. Morales said he is the only person permitted to interact with Junior, including at feeding time and play time. The K-9 dogs wear vests that say “Do Not Pet” in big gold letters.
While Junior is an Explosive Detection Canine who focuses on luggage and surface areas, there is another type of K-9 working at Bush. Passenger Screening Canines are trained to detect explosives in the “wake odor” that each person leaves behind as they move. When a TSA K-9 detects explosives, they will have a passive response and sit down. The dogs are not food-motivated, they are toy-motivated. After they have a passive response, they are allowed to play with their designated toy for a short period of time.
According to a TSA spokesperson, the TSA K-9 dogs at Bush are trained exclusively to search for explosives. The dogs are not looking for illegal drugs; however, if they are found, the police are contacted. The spokesperson also noted that another federal agency may have a dog in the airport searching for other things.
Morales said he sees his and Junior’s role as one of a visual and physical deterrent. “We are here to do anything we can to make traveling safer for the public,” Morales said. He added that most airline passengers have a positive response to seeing the team in the airport and that most will say, “Thanks for being here” or “Thanks for your service.”