The local unit is one of four deployed in the U.S. Another is situated in Wichita; the company contracts with private security agencies for additional teams in Chicago and Southern California. The decade-old program, the outgrowth of Boeing’s need for enhanced security following 9/11, began with mostly German shepherds and Belgian Malinois and has segued to Labrador retrievers and Lab mixes.
Trained to identify and alert to 17,000 different explosive-based chemicals and compounds, some of the newest team members are former shelter dogs, says Melissa Larsen, trainer and an original team member. Earlier ones were graduates from the prestigious Auburn University Canine Detection Training Center at Fort McClellan, Ala.
John Decker, senior manager of the K-9 program, and Larsen select the canine candidates based on an assortment of criteria.
Larsen’s correspondence to area shelter officials reads:
“What are we looking for? Typically a Lab mix with a very high ball drive. When I test the dogs I look for their ability to use their nose to search for the ball. I don’t care if they find the ball, the main thing is they don’t give up looking and don’t get distracted. We like to take them away from their normal environment to do the testing, since this is usually where distractions will play a big part.
“ . . . We want a dog that uses the air current rather than just nose down. It is also best if the ball is right in front of the dog’s face and I see him trying to figure out where it is without seeing it with the eyes. If the dog passes
these initial tests, I usually take it for one to two days with me to Boeing facilities to see if it has any fear of surfaces, noises, etc. If it passes this portion, it is taken into the program. We have not had any dog ‘wash out’ . . . after all of this testing.”
Pairing partners is critical but not difficult, Decker explains. “You look at personalities. You want to match a high-drive animal with a similar officer. Mixing opposites breeds total frustration and lack of production.
“Because our dogs interact with our employees and the public on a daily basis, we want an animal that has a keen, discriminating sense of smell and focus, yet is not aggressive, or perceived by the public to be that way. The public sees the Lab as a lovable, teddy bear.”
The teams are often the public face of the company at shareholders meetings, customer product delivery events, on the field and flight lines during flight tests, at major employee forums and occasionally traveling together on commercial airline flights.
They sweep the premises of Boeing facilities for hazards or explosives along with screening incoming vehicles, abandoned briefcases and packages. They are available to be called in by outside law-enforcement agencies for bomb threats or work special events involving dignitaries. Typical finds, explains Larsen, are guns and ammo in delivery trucks or contractor vehicles every few months.
Decker refuses to place a price tag on the unit’s earlier dogs, but it is not unusual for an agency to spend $20,000 for a fully trained animal. Because today’s new members come from shelters, adoption fees are sometimes waived or don’t exceed $100. Additional savings are recognized by in-house training.
Because training is key for keeping each team razor sharp, all undergo a weekly session of four hours or more. When Larsen spots an issue, that pair undergoes additional fine-tuning until the matter is resolved. Typical problems are a reaction to loud noises or surface issues, like a slippery floor.
“A team may be working well and all of a sudden a loud impact wrench or another noise may set a dog off,” Larsen says. “The same goes with the slippery floor. It’s simply a matter of rebuilding a comfort zone for the animal.”
Because weather affects dogs’ scenting abilities training takes that into account, too. Intense heat not only saps the animals’ energy quicker but hot pavement can burn their pads. Snow and cold force them to work longer and harder. Wind, however, is the most challenging element, since it can drive odor away from the target item.
Each team is recertified annually in a two- to three-day test where explosive training aids of varying weights and sizes are planted in five areas, which can be a vehicle, open space, warehouse, office or bus. A passing score is 90 percent. Failure to attain that requires the team to be retested within 30 days, either on the entire test or one facet only at Decker’s behest.
“I don’t set a time limit for any exercise,” says Decker, “but I have a reasonable time in mind that it should be completed, depending on the size of the search area. The test is designed to challenge both handler and dog. Can the handler read the dog? Is the dog working for the handler? Are they in sync?”
Because all dogs are retired at age 9, Larsen and Decker are afforded a 1-year window to begin shelter shopping for a replacement. “We have a good relationship with area shelters and rescue groups,” explains Decker. “It helps when we narrow the field to one breed or a mix of that breed, too.”
Being family members, the dogs must interact smoothly with small children and other pets. Hence, another reason the Labrador retriever is the breed of choice.
Huey, for instance, a 73-pound, 4-year-old yellow Lab, replaced handler Jeff Johnson’s previous partner, Yale, which continues to live with Johnson and his wife, Jennie.
Johnson joined the Boeing K-9 team in 2007 after serving eight years in the Air Force as a military police-dog trainer, where he chiefly worked Belgian Malinois and German shepherds.
“The move to Labs was a relatively easy transition,” he said, “since I had been away from the military for a short while and my wife and relatives already had the breed.”
The dog’s favorite leisure activities include retrieving a Frisbee, walking in dog parks and hiking with the family.
“When he’s not working, he loves the public,” Johnson adds. “He’s an excellent ambassador for the program, but when he’s on the job, he’s totally focused. In that respect, Huey is the total package.”