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Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day

The Throw Away Dogs Project's mission is to rescue high driven dogs, train them and then donate them to law enforcement departments that cannot afford one. It was through this project that one of the nation's most unique human-canine teams was formed.

Happy National Dog Day!

Where would we be without our four-legged friends who provide help and support to us in so many ways? Whether they are fighting crime, sniffing out explosives or narcotics, rescuing people in distress, providing physical and emotional support, or just keeping us company as we sign executive orders or write news stories, dogs are truly our best friend.

Saving lives on the frontline

Earlier this year, a small but mighty Jack Russell terrier hit the headlines for performing an extraordinary service to the people of Ukraine. Patron, who works with his owner and handler Mykhailo Iliev for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, has been sniffing out deadly explosive devices left by Russian troops and has already found hundreds. Patron is a well-decorated dog. The mascot of the International Coordination Center for Humanitarian Demining in Ukraine, he and Iliev were honored in May by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau with the Order for Courage, Third Class for services to Ukraine. He was then also awarded Palm Dog for “DogManitarian Work” at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Homeland Security Today’s own team mascot and sponsor dog, Cambodia-based Gizmo, is in a very similar line of work to Patron. Gizmo is a technical survey dog with APOPO, which is perhaps best known for mine detection rats. Faster than metal detectors, a single technical survey dog (known at APOPO as a HeroDOG) can effectively survey an area of up to 4000m2 per day across challenging terrain with thick vegetation. Gizmo and her fellow HeroDOGs are trained to indicate when they find the smell of explosives from a safe distance away.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
Gizmo and her handler, Soy Rady, started bonding right from the start to ensure that they’re a great working match. Gizmo and Rady not only work together, but they live together too. (Photo: APOPO)

Each dog is equipped with the Swiss developed SMART system – a backpack with Global Positioning System (GPS), a speaker and a video camera, that shows and records the dog’s search pattern and location. This allows the handler to instruct the dog through verbal command. When the dog finds an explosive item, the dogs are trained to sit down at a distance of at least one meter and wait patiently for their handler’s next command. This distance keeps the dogs safely out of harm’s way. The system generates maps with the survey progress and all the findings, which allows for better evidence-based decision-making on which areas will be released and which need to be cleared.

Protecting the homeland

In the United States, at borders and across transportation systems, dogs are sniffing for explosives on a daily basis. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Canine Program has more than 1,500 canine teams alone, making it the largest and most diverse law enforcement canine program in the country. CBP canines have had several successes this year already. In May for example, a Uvalde Border Patrol canine team rescued 20 migrants locked inside a car hauler with no means of escape. At the time of the encounter, the temperature was 81 degrees. And they are adept at finding explosives and narcotics in all sorts of places.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
U.S. Border Patrol canine Aldaco poses next to suspected fentanyl pills seized at a checkpoint in Campo on July 18, 2022. (Photo: CBP)

Those thinking they can outsmart a detection dog should think again. In April, a Border Patrol canine alerted to a vehicle which had four spare tires located in the bed of the truck. An in-depth inspection revealed numerous packages containing methamphetamine fentanyl inside the tires. And just last month near Campo, a vehicle search following a canine alert resulted in the discovery of multiple bundles of fentanyl concealed within the vehicle’s spare tire and gas tank.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
CBP agriculture canine Candie, who has detected various substances including plants, seeds and banned food items. (Photo: CBP)

CBP also trains and uses agriculture detector dogs under a separate program. CBP often recruits young dogs from rescues for its agricultural program. They complete training where they learn to discern odors and most graduate to be placed at ports of entry. Last year, CBP agriculture canines detected 120,269 prohibited items at CBP Ports of Entry across the country, and 96,450 items through June this year. Earlier this month, CBP agriculture canine Harrie alerted to the baggage of a student arriving from Kenya whose mother sent him off to school with nearly 15 pounds of vegetables, and on August 1, Harrie alerted to the baggage of another traveler from Bangladesh. Inside his baggage CBP agriculture specialists discovered about 19 pounds of prohibited beef, pork, and fruit. 

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
TSA canine teams may consist of transportation security inspectors or local or state law enforcement officers who are paired with explosives detection canines and work in airports, maritime, mass transit and cargo facilities  across the nation. (Photo: TSA)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also has a strong canine team, which it can even deploy outside transportation hubs as required, such as at large events like the Super Bowl and Presidential inaugurations to assist the hard working canine teams of law enforcement departments all round the United States. The TSA National Explosives Detection Canine Program trains and deploys both TSA-led and state and local law enforcement-led canine teams in support of day-to-day activities that protect the transportation domain. There are more than 1,000 TSA canine teams deployed nationwide that are tasked with screening passengers and cargo, and supporting other security missions.

Standing beside every good dog is a good human, their best pal and very often their working partner too. That’s truly the case for David Seamands and his dog, Hhilbert. Seamands was announced in March to be TSA’s Canine Handler of the Year. Dogs have been a big part of Seamands’ life for nearly three decades. They’ve worked together around-the-clock to protect the public, from the time Seamands was in the U.S. Army until now at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Seamands’ won the award with TSA canine Hhilbert, who is named in honor of U.S. Army Cpl. Thomas Layton Hilbert from Venus, Texas, who gave the ultimate sacrifice to this great nation on Sept. 7, 2007, when he lost his life in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport’s David Seamands, TSA’s 2021 Canine Handler of the Year, and his partner Hhilbert. (Photo: David Seamands)

When Seamands was presented with the award he said the award was more for Hhilbert. “This award is more for him than for me,” Seamands emphasized. “Hhilbert is just plain amazing. Our partners don’t call in sick. Going through the motions in our line of work isn’t allowed. It must be good, quality work.” Seamands said Hhilbert, who has since retired, continued Cpl. Hilbert’s legacy of protecting and fighting for safety and freedom. “It was an honor to work with a partner who had the shoulders to carry this heavy weight. That is a lot to live up to, and I can attest that Hhilbert did that every day of his career.” After becoming a canine handler in 1993 while in the Army, Seamands joined TSA as a canine handler in 2012, partnering with Hhilbert for nearly 10 years and now working with his new canine, Luger. However, Hhilbert is still with him in retirement since he hung up his TSA harness in December.

Most working canines tend to retire with their handlers, like Hhilbert, who is now putting his paws up and munching snacks with Seamands. However, sometimes this is not possible. This summer for the first time in history, TSA partnered with an outside organization to find an adoptive family for a retiring canine. TSA Headquarters Canine Coordinator Andrew Hotinger reached out to Jason Johnson, the founder of Project K-9 Hero, to see if Johnson’s nonprofit group could find Rex, a Washington state-based german shorthaired pointer, a permanent home. Project K-9 Hero’s vision is to ensure the best quality of life for America’s retired military and police canine heroes by assisting with medical costs, food, rehabilitation, adoption and end of duty services. A great new home was quickly found for Rex and Hotinger believes this could be the start of a long partnership between TSA and Project K-9 Hero and extend the mission of TSA’s canine program.

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), canine search teams play a critical role in supporting local and state response efforts with the capability to locate disaster survivors as well as human remains.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
A FEMA canine search team in action (Photo: FEMA)

Dogs can detect live human scent, even if a survivor is buried deep in rubble. FEMA has close to 300 canine search teams that specialize in searching for survivors and almost 100 teams that specialize in searching for human remains. 

A dog nose best

As any working canine handler will tell you, a dog’s nose is legendary. Indeed, anyone with a pet dog will know they can sniff out a BBQ from 40 blocks away, or that tiny crumb of cheese on someone else’s picnic blanket… and as well as explosives, narcotics and people, they can also smell disease. Yet another way in which dogs help us. Medical Detection Dogs trains dogs to detect the odor of human disease including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and bacterial infections. The dogs find the odor of those diseases in samples such as urine, breath and sweat. They can be used as medical alert dogs, detecting minute changes in a person’s odor and alerting them to an impending medical event, as well as detection dogs in public settings. The COVID-19 infection for example has a distinct smell, which specially trained dogs can rapidly, non-invasively detect with up to 94.3% sensitivity and up to 92% specificity.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
A dog is trained to detect COVID-19 (Photo: Neil Pollock for Medical Detection Dogs)

In a trial, the Medical Detection Dogs were able to detect odor from individuals who were asymptomatic, as well as those with two different strains, and with both high and low viral loads. The trial found that two dogs could reliably screen 300 plane passengers in around 30 minutes as part of a ‘Rapid Screen and Test’ strategy.

Old dog, new tricks 

The saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ could not be further from the truth when talking about the Throw Away Dogs Project. The non-profit’s mission is to rescue high driven dogs, train them and then donate them to law enforcement departments around the Philadelphia region that cannot afford one. The goal one day is to be known around the country and be able to rescue, train and transport these dogs all over the map. The project follows through with every dog from start to finish. Not all dogs will make it through canine school and the project will then find a perfect loving family for that dog that will love and treat them like part of their family. 

It was through the Throw Away Dogs Project that one of the nation’s most unique human-canine teams was formed. The human half of this pawesome partnership, Millville Fire Department firefighter Tyler Van Leer, explains how he came to meet Hansel, the super social pit bull terrier with a nose for crime:

“Hansel was donated to the Millville Fire Department by the Throw Away Dogs Project. He was born in Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately, he along with many other dogs were born into an alleged dog fighting ring. Hansel never fought. A rescue called Dog Tales Rescue and Sanctuary rescued 21 pit bull terriers, later to be known as #savethe21. After two years fighting in Ontario courts, the judge ordered the dogs out of Ontario. Hansel then made his way to Florida to a rescue called Dogs Playing for Life, where, because of his high energy and willingness to work, he was tested for a possible working dog position. The founder of the rescue, Aimee Sadler was close friends with Carol Skaziak who is the founder of the Throw Away Dogs Project, and Carol accepted Hansel into her Pitbulls for Police program.”

But Hansel had a different calling to most canine officers. Firefighter Van Leer had always been interested in pursuing a career in fire investigation and thought that having a resource such as an ignitable liquid detection canine would be an awesome tool to have.

“I pitched the idea to my Chief, about adding a working dog to the ranks of the Fire Department and he said ‘let’s do this’,” Van Leer recalls. “Like any new handler I had no idea where to start. My good friend John Butschky is a canine handler for the police department where I live and he put me in touch with Carol at the Throw Away Dogs Project. We arranged a meet and greet at the Fire Department and the moment Hansel and I met eyes it was an instant bond.”

Hansel graduated his scent training with Van Leer in January 2020 and now works as an arson detection dog, sniffing out ignitable liquids like kerosene and lighter fluid. The certified team are inseparable.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
Arson detection dog Hansel and his handler Tyler Van Leer (Photo: Tyler Van Leer)

“Hansel comes to work with me every day Monday through Friday and we are on call 24/7. I deploy Hansel after every fire to rule out the possibility of ignitable liquids on the scene. Before I put Hansel in a house I conduct a scene survey and look for anything that could possibly hurt him. If the structure is too unstable or there are too many holes in the floor, I will not deploy him.”

Van Leer says Hansel is the best decision he ever made. “I couldn’t ask for a better canine partner”. We think the feeling is mutual, just look at Hansel’s grin!

More and more police departments and security agencies are finding that quite often, dogs who don’t find the right fit as a family pet are perfect at search and rescue, detection or protection work. These dogs are often born to do a job and we just need to help them to find what that job is, whether it’s being a child’s best friend or being the one to bring down an international drug cartel.

When their job is done, what happens to service dogs when they retire? As the TSA stories above show, they are not forgotten when they have worked their last day. And in July, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance (CGMA) – the official aid society for the United States Coast Guard – announced a new program to support Coast Guard working dogs in their retirement. The Retired Working Animal Medical Expenses Grant (WAG) will cover veterinary care insurance costs and cremation for retiring Coast Guard working animals.

Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
Coast Guard canine Kelly and her handler Petty Officer 2nd Class Jacob Brasker, members of Maritime Safety and Security Team Los Angeles/Long Beach. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Taylor Bacon)

Coast Guard working dogs are well-trained and mission ready. However when they retire, service canines are not entitled to any further financial support from the Coast Guard. Currently there are 18 working dogs, supporting the mission around the Coast Guard. The WAG program was launched through the generous patronage of Ms. Maureen Manning, daughter of Rear Admiral Alfred P. and Claire Manning. Describing her commitment to the mission of the new program, Ms Manning said, “All members for our service deserve to be taken care of and that includes the four-footed ones.” She gave the gift in memory of her parents and her own dog Sandy. 

Fighting crime hand in paw

Every hero dog needs their own hero. Regular readers of Homeland Security Today may remember Brady Snakovsky who won our Citizen of Mission award in 2019 for his commitment to protect canine officers. When he was only eight years old, Brady realized there was a need for all law enforcement canines to have their own protective vest and so he started fundraising. His aim was to buy one vest and now, as of August 2022, Brady’s K9 Fund has vested a phenomenal 660 brave police dogs, keeping them safe as they work to keep us safe. The mission is to provide every working dog in America with a lightweight ballistic vest. Brady’s K9 Fund sources the vests from Line Of Fire Defence which is kind enough to give the charity the law enforcement cost which allows more to be donated.

Brady is supported by a team of like-minded heroes, most notably his mom and fund president, Leah Tornabene, who told us that Brady is still very much involved with the charity despite other demands on his time, not least school, and that he has been coming up with ideas and keeping an eye on finances.

Leah said that the fund currently has a waiting list of 52 dogs in need of vests, which is one of the highest numbers they have seen since they began. It’s perhaps because of the large number of vested dogs – and the successes of the vests – that more and more handlers are aware and want to see their buddy protected. As well as providing vests to canine officers in police departments across the United States, the fund is truly international, having already vested dogs in Canada, the U.K. and Sweden, plus dogs in service with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.

“We have had three dogs that we know of this year where the vest had saved them in fights,” Leah told us. “Our Sweden canine, Demon was stabbed in his vest multiple times by a knife and once in the tail. The vest completely saved him obviously, but his tail had to be removed from the wound. In Alaska a canine was in an apprehension where the suspect had a sword and hit the vest saving the dog. And recently this month in Ohio, police canine Rye was apprehending a bad guy in a basement. He was wearing his vest. He was stabbed by a knife in the arm and above the eye needing surgery. He is ok and recovering. The vest didn’t get stabbed, but if that turned out to be the case and the guy got him in the stomach or chest, he would have been ok. That’s all we want to see. The little bit of added protection for situations like these. Each year we hear from handlers that their canines were in apprehensions and it gave those handlers a bit of comfort knowing they had those vests to protect their best friends.”
Celebrating Our Canine Heroes on International Dog Day Homeland Security Today
Sacramento police canine Rye in his K9 Fund vest. (Photo: Brady’s K9 Fund)

Another amazing thing the fund does is if they hear that a canine is involved in a takedown where they are injured, survived, and were not wearing a vest they reach out to those handlers and send them a vest immediately so once they are back on the street after recovery they have the protection they need. Police canine Ranger in Sacramento is an example of that. “Ranger was stabbed so badly he bled out an enormous amount and shouldn’t be here to this day,” Leah explains. “However this tough dude is back on the streets and lives to work! The handler often reaches out to me just to thank us over and over that Ranger will be ok if that ever happens again. The entire Sacramento team was vested after Ranger because we don’t ever want to see that happen to any of their dogs.”

There really is no better partnership than human and dog. They catch criminals, rescue us, detect explosives, drugs, diseases and more. And as Brady, Leah and their team and countless others have shown, we can give back too. On National Dog Day, we can help to honor these brave heroes by donating to one of the charities mentioned here or by taking some food to a local dog shelter, maybe you’ll even end up with a new best friend…

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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