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Better Than New Tricks: Training Dogs for Disaster Response

dog with sensors(October 2007) Dogs are already experts at sniffing out all kinds of hidden threats, from contraband to concealed explosive devices. But now a team of scientists led by the Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL) thinks they can improve on this excellent canine capability.

Canine trainers and technology experts have joined together at TSL in New Jersey—a lab of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) —to enhance the invaluable skills of trained dogs by partnering them with technology. The idea is that a canine can be sent, off-leash, into an environment where a disaster has just occurred, and send back a suite of critical information to its handler and the first responders on the scene.

Has TSL taught dogs how to speak English and use cell phones? Well, not quite … but the scientists have trained a prototype pooch to venture into an underground mass transit environment carrying a multi-sensor guidance and tracking system embedded in a harness and vest, along with his wonderful nose! Major (shown here) has learned how to work with this system, which includes physiological, detection, and location monitors, in addition to an audio guidance system. The guidance system allows the handler to direct the dog off-lead while sensor feedback data is transmitted to the handler or first responder at a remote location.

The Canine Mass Transit Remote Sensor System project is monitored by Polly Gongwer at TSL and is supported by the S&T Directorate’s Explosives Division. Major himself is from Auburn University’s esteemed breeding program, and Auburn’s Paul Waggoner is on the sensor system team. Joseph Weiter at Wyle Laboratories is developing the systems approach to providing communications and data linkage for canines and their handlers, using remote commands and remote navigation sensors and commands.

The vest assembly has been adapted for canine use, and the integrated components currently include a radio, a tone generator, an amplified speaker, a digital transmitter, a video camera, a wiring harness, a battery pack, and a power adapter.

So far, Wyle Labs has successfully identified and tested a remote-sensor guidance and communication system for use in a multilevel subway. In a multilevel or long-distance situation, repeaters will be needed to transmit or receive audio or video signals.

Based on the success of preliminary tests, “Auburn has already started incorporating the communications vest assembly into their canine explosive training protocol,” says Gongwer. In the near future, she says, both physiological and radiation detection sensors will be added to the vest assembly, providing more and newer canine tricks.

The canine and prototype system is now being evaluated with the cooperation of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority in a multilevel subway. Next, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will participate in tests, with the communications being sent remotely to TSL.

As man’s best friend goes high tech, perhaps next year we’ll see a version of doggie Blue Tooth!

To request more information about this story, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

Last Updated: 01/03/2023
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