ANNISTON, Ala. —
A black Labrador retriever wearing a harness that read "do not pet" hurriedly sniffed every person in the room, searching for the telltale odor of an explosive device.
When "Unity" caught wind of the scent she was looking for, she jumped at the heels of the man, not letting him out of her sight. Unity's handlers immediately praised her good work with a tennis ball, which she happily chewed while wearing that unmistakable Lab "smile."
Unity is one of 11 dogs being trained at the Auburn University Canine Detection Training Center at McClellan. The Labs are learning the Auburn-patented vapor-wake training, which means they'll be able to smell a plume of scent left by an explosive device that is worn or carried.
John Pearce, associate director of the Training Center, said they've used vapor-wake training for eight years.
Pearce said the vapor-wake trained dogs cost $24,950 and dogs skilled in vapor-wake and standard explosive detection cost $29,950. The Labs trained in Anniston are used by law enforcement agencies across the country, including the New York Police Department and U.S. Capitol Police. Pearce said he couldn't say with absolute certainty, but if one of his Labs had been at the Boston Marathon the pressure cooker bombs that killed three people might have been discovered before they went off.
"We feel strongly that if they were given an opportunity to work that they're very good at doing that," Pearce said.
The facility not only trains the dogs, but breeds them as well. Pearce said between 10 and 12 litters of puppies are born each year. At 13 weeks old, the puppies are sent to prisons in Florida and Georgia where they are raised by inmates.
"They're raised in a very controlled way. Everything we do with them in the prison is planned for vapor-wake later on," he said.
Andrea Turley, kennel master, works with the puppies from birth until they're sent to the prisons.
"We socialize them and try to get them out in the public," Turley said. "We get them used to different environments and noises."
The dogs return to the center when they're a year old and are tested to see if they have the right personality for vapor-wake training.
Pearce said the purebred black and yellow Labs are the type most people would not want as house pets.
"This is the dog people call and complain about and say 'it's tearing my house up,'" he joked.
They're high-energy dogs that Pearce described as professional athletes.
"Kind of like somebody that's not doing anything but training for the Olympics, that's what they're doing. They're training for that and they love every minute of it," Pearce said.
Pearce said the program has used Labs since it started 12 years ago because of their temperament and ability to be placed in different situations without fear of someone getting hurt.
The vapor-wake dogs usually work in crowded spaces where it's easy to have a paw stepped on by a passerby.
"If you step on the paw of a German shepherd you might get bit," Pearce said. "If you do with a Lab you might just get a yelp out of them."
Pearce said the Labs in the vapor-wake program are trained for six weeks and the person at the law enforcement agency who will be handling the dog must pass a training certification as well.
Jesica Fleming, an instructor with the program, said Unity had been in training for 28 days and was thriving. First, Fleming introduces odors associated with explosives to the dogs and then trains them to track that scent on a person walking by.
The dogs are trained to recognize 10 different odors through scent boxes.
"One box has the odor we're teaching them and then they have blank boxes as well. So it's just like a game to the dog to find which box the odor is in," Fleming said.
Fleming said it can be difficult to focus the dogs' energy, but the ones with the most energy want to work and learn quickly.
Pearce said when the dogs train at the Quintard Mall it's on a small scale because it's generally not a crowded area. Recently, Pearce visited the New York Police Department to see some of the program's former trainees pounding the pavement in the Big Apple.
"It's very impressive when you see hundreds of people walking and the dog is able to find one person out of thousands in that area," Pearce said.