AUBURN, Ala (WKRG) — Auburn University hardly seems like the front line in the War on Terror. And Labrador retrievers bred on campus seem unlikely warriors in that battle.
But those “Auburn dogs” are in use around the world and could be saving thousands of lives, thanks to new detection technologies being developed and implemented in the state of Alabama.
For decades Auburn has been at the forefront of developing and breeding dogs to detect explosives. When News 5 visited campus in October, training was taking place in the old Beard-Eaves Coliseum in an abandoned locker room.
A yellow lab named Bell was able to sniff out trace elements of TNT.
Detecting stationary targets, at the direction of handlers, is now just the first step, though, for Auburn’s explosive-detecting dogs. They are now being bred and trained to detect moving targets, like suicide bombers.
“Vapor Wake was a real game-changer for the detection of moving targets,” says Dr. Paul Waggoner, Director of Auburn’s Canine Performances Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Waggoner helped develop a new, and now patented, approach to detection called ‘Vapor Wake,’ based on the invisible heat plume that people emit.
“If you can image, when you start walking, that plume is going to lay down behind you and lay down like a wake behind a boat,” Waggoner explains. “Hence the name – ‘Vapor Wake.’ Because that wake accentuates or amplifies that signal coming off a body, if a person is containing explosives, then the best place for the dog to sample is in this wake behind them. Therefore groups of people, as they come through, can be screened at one time, making it efficient and not impeding the flow of people.”
Auburn breeds about 50 to 60 of these exceptional labs every year. They get about eight months of imprinting and training at Auburn, and four months of one-on-one discipline training with inmates in several federal prisons, before heading to the former Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama.
In Anniston, the company VWK9 provides intense training for six more months. The Auburn dogs learn to detect dozens of explosives, first in stationary targets like cargo, luggage, and automobiles. Then, handlers train the labs in their Vapor Wake abilities. It’s a necessary skill set to keep up with today’s top security threat.
“The security gap is for body worn explosive threats,” explains Paul Hammond, the President of VWK9. “The Paris attacks, the Belgium attacks, the Boston Marathon, London, Manchester, when you look at the attacks in the west, maybe the last ten attacks, seven of them were body-worn explosives, either transited or detonated.”
That is why the Auburn dogs are trained in Anniston to use their Vapor Wake skills. The Vapor Wake dogs are perfect for detecting explosives in venues with lots of chaos and moving people.
“Our Vapor Wake dogs are obedient to the odor itself and not people or objects,” Hammond said. “As pedestrian traffic flows move through an area, we can traverse the heat plumes, and if we can detect minuscule amounts of explosives, we can follow it through to the source.”
According to Waggoner, in some training exercises, Vapor Wake trained dogs have tracked an explosive odor to a moving target a half-mile away.
More than 130 Vapor Wake dogs are now in service around the world. They were purchased at a cost of up to $50,000 each by government agencies, the military, police departments, mass transit systems, professional sports teams and universities.
“Detroit Tigers, the Red Wings, the Pistons, St. Louis Cardinals, Auburn University, the Atlanta Braves,” Hammond says, rattling off some of VWK9’s clients. “The New York Police Departments’ counter-terrorism unit has got 14 Vapor Wake dogs.”
And now, these dogs are being used not only to foil suicide and other bombers but mass shooters as well.
“We now are getting a lot of requests to use this technology for weapons detection,” Hammond says.
He says the dogs can be trained to detect the metals, plastics, and oils used in firearms, as well as the explosive elements. It’s the next frontier in detection for the trainers in Anniston and the researchers in Auburn who, through breeding, continue to fine tune the capabilities of these life-saving dogs.
“The Auburn dog is the most capable and most reliable dog available,” Waggoner says.
Hammond agrees. He says VWK9 used Auburn dogs exclusively until demand outpaced supply. Now about 70-percent of VWK9’s dogs come from Auburn.
All Vapor Wake dogs are labs. Waggoner says Auburn’s labs are bred for a lack of anxiety and physical strength. He says they are perfect to work in large crowds because people are not intimidated by them.