FRONT ROYAL, Va. -- Mark Barron is darting around an abandoned warehouse in his ready-for-action government jumpsuit. Stern-faced and swift-moving, he seems ready for Armageddon as he hunts for explosives in this remote building in the Shenandoah Mountains.
Suddenly, this bomb terminator from Australia stops cold, turns to his bomb-sniffing dog, Debbie, and bursts into a squeaky, high-pitched squeal.
"GOOD GIRL!" the tough guy gushes as Debbie wags her tail and pants with drooly enthusiasm at the sight of a crunchy dog treat. "AREN'T YOU A GOOD GIRL? YES! YOU! ARE!"
Debbie has just noticed a trace of TNT in a metal canister, a feat that wins her a snack and plenty of praise at bomb-sniffing boot camp in the Virginia hills.
She and 15 other future bomb dogs are training for duty at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Teaching ordinary Labrador retrievers to sniff out things that go ka-boom is a specialty of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, whose widely acclaimed Canine Explosives Detection Program in Front Royal has drawn takers from at least 10 countries.
Fearing terrorism and spooked by the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Australian police have decided to recruit and train their bomb dogs here.
Master and dog share a mission: On this day, five Australian trainers are trying to get their dogs to learn the faintest smells of the 10 most common explosive agents used in bombs.
Each time a dog recognizes an explosive, the trainer hands it a reward. On hundreds of drills seven days a week, the pair get along like two guys in a buddy movie.
"I won't shake your hand -- it's a bit like shaking a dog's hand, or maybe a dog's mouth," Barron, an officer with Australia's New South Wales Police, says, cheerfully extending his hand anyway after wiping it on his pants.
As part of the training, he has just lavished praise -- and one of what will be 100 dog snacks per day -- on Debbie, the black Lab.
The canines -- seeing-eye-dog school rejects, kicked out for chasing squirrels and the like -- will be reshaped into top-flight bomb experts. After completing the center's work-intensive and wide-ranging bomb-sniffing regimen this fall, these native Washington, D.C., dogs will be sent Down Under with their police masters.
There, they will live like divas. When Barron takes the 20-hour flight home to Australia, his canine will sit in the cabin with him. When Barron stays in hotels, the center expects him to give up part (or all) of his bed when the canine is especially pooped. The dog will get only the best doctors, the best food, the best accommodations (no dreary kennels here).
"This is no ordinary dog," says Rhonda Bokorney, an ATF special agent who heads the canine operations center. "He's your pet, and he's your partner."
Bokorney, a Kansan who oversees the 16-week program, is a law enforcer who reveres dogs enough to snap "mixed breed" when someone says "mutt" around her. She makes sure the center churns out 40 dogs a year with U.S. government certification, a guarantee that they can recognize by smell up to 20 kinds of compounds used in most explosives.
For the Australians, a dog with a gold-plated resume sounds pretty reassuring, especially given their worries about bomb attacks at the Sydney Olympics.
"Having seen it done in Atlanta, we were concerned," says Sgt. Bob Cameron, a bomb-dog training coordinator for an Australian police force. At the Summer Games in Atlanta, a pipe bomb full of nails and screws killed a woman when it exploded in Centennial Olympic Park -- an area not patrolled by state or federal bomb dogs because it was not a sports venue.
Discussing the tragedy, Cameron gets nervous not just for himself, but for his dogs.
LTC "Ivan," he says to a canine sitting near him, "shut your ears."
Most of the dogs trained at the center are exported overseas. Raised as puppies by American families, about 160 of them have gone to foreign countries, with the State Department footing the bulk of the bills.
Alumni include canines working at the Vatican, in the security detail for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and on duty in the world's airports.
Buying and training a bomb dog can cost the U.S. government up to $8,000 -- excluding the salaries of trainers and other expenses. Washington recently allotted $7 million to expand the center, partly on the theory that the U.S. government has an interest in protecting international travel and American personnel overseas from bomb blasts.
The government's canine program is unusual because it conditions dogs not to jump and become excited when they smell explosives, but instead to calmly sit or halt at the scent.
A dog's sense of smell is so acute -- more than 100 times the power of humans -- that it can detect a trace of explosive smaller than a grain of sugar.
This is a dream job for a big eater. The canines are trained with food rewards and get snacks all day instead of meals. They start out sniffing residue in small tins and then smell their way through schools, airports and bomb-filled bunkers rigged by agents.
"It's not like we're asking the dog to do math -- it's a simple matter of conditioning," Bokorney says. "No dog has failed our program because he could not figure out an odor."
The dogs seem to deliver. One of the center's dogs detected the explosive residue on a gun from outside a car in Athens -- even though the gun was locked in a glove compartment.
Another sniffed out a bomb-filled booby trap at the home of Egyptian terrorists. A well-trained dog can smell bombs buried underground more than 50 years ago.
When the dogs do mess up during training, they are not yelled at, but are left to think about what they did. Yes, these trainers assume that dogs can think, and think smart.
"The dog makes a choice on its own," says Shawn Crawford, an instructor with the center who is teaching the Australian trainers how to handle their new dogs. "If it learns it made the wrong one, it goes, 'Aw, I messed up,' and does better the next time."
The mission has done well by its charges. So far, none of the center's dogs has died in the line of duty. Plus, they get official treatment, with a badge and a government ID. The center is also printing collectors' baseball cards with each dog's vital statistics on them.
Crawford says these canines have better than a dog's life.
"Look at them -- they're smiling," he says, surveying his class. "They get their tongues out and their lips curl up. They're smiling, all right. I think they like doing what they do."
Pub Date: 6/24/98