In the animal world, the canine sense of smell is the stuff of legends. A few specially trained dogs can find explosives that are being carried by a person in motion...and they can do it among huge crowds of people.
Long before the fans came to watch the Spartans duke it out with the Fighting Irish on the hardwood, police from both Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame were keeping watch at the Breslin Center.
Working in pairs, the teams put their eyes, ears and noses to the task of maintaining public safety.
MSU policeman Adam Atkinson was on duty with his partner, Cora.
She’s a little young for a cop, but she’s already a trusted member of the force.
“She’s a two-and-a-half year old yellow Labrador Retriever,” he says.
Cora holds a special place in the K-9 corps. She’s a “Vape Wake” dog. That’s not a breed...it’s a brand. Developed at Auburn University, Vape Wake is a program in which dogs are trained to track the vapors that are emitted by explosive devices.
Atkinson says that’s a departure from the way bomb dogs were trained in the past.
“When you look at how events are normally ran with explosive detecting dogs, the dogs would come in ahead of time and search before the crowd arrived,” Atkinson explains. “Now we have dogs that can not only search ahead of time, but they can also search during and after the games.”
The human body produces heat. When we’re sitting or standing, our thermal plume rises silently and invisibly above our heads. But when we’re walking, the plume trails along behind us. Dogs are very good at detecting those molecules. A person carrying an explosive device emits a heat signature that’s part body and part bomb. A well-trained dog can locate a would-be perpetrator...even in a crowd of thousands of people.
The Vape Wake program taps into a dog’s genetics to develop animals that can rise to the task. From the time they’re born, puppies are tested to perform in all sorts of environments.
“They have to be able to work in extreme heat, extreme heat, when there’s a lot of people around, and just focus on what their job is,” says Atkinson. “And I believe they select dogs that have that passion to want to work.”
It’s not all work. We’re talking about dogs, after all...an animal that lives for playtime.
One loquacious lab is named Skeet. He came up from South Bend to help out at the big game. His canine colleague Toxi is more subdued.
“Toxi! I didn’t name her, but it suits her quite well,” says University of Notre Dame police officer Jarett Gilpin.
Toxi has never discovered a real explosive in the real world. But Gilpin says in training, she’s sniffed out a lot of interesting finds.
“They find all kinds of stuff: shoe polish, fertilizer...some kind of Teflon-coated packing solution, she found...so it’s kind of amazing,” he says.
At 5:30, the gates have opened at the Breslin...and Toxi, Skeet and Cora are down the hall, hard at work.
Vapor detection dogs are not meant to take the place of traditional police animals. Other dogs are trained for different missions. But in the post 9/11era, Cora the yellow lab brings a skill set that meets a changing security environment.
“These dogs search super fast, they can search a large area, they’re sniffing people as they’re walking through...so it just gives us that extra security blanket; another way to protect people,” says Atkinson.
So, as thousands cheered MSU on victory over Notre Dame on Thursday, the Breslin Center stayed safe...thanks in no small measure to a three dog night.