This post is adapted from the blog of Udemy, a Priceonomics customer

To a well-trained dog, nothing is more exciting than finding a bomb.

When Lucca, a German shepherd–Belgian Malinois mix, smelled explosives in the Nahri Saraj District of Afghanistan in March 2012, her tail started wagging. She looked toward her handler, Marine Corporal Juan Rodriguez. He patted her side and said in a singsong voice, “Good girl, Lucca!” before alerting his unit that Lucca had found a hidden improvised explosive device. 

The thirteen-year war in Afghanistan was the longest in American history. The Iraq War lasted another eight, and America’s involvement in both countries has not truly ended. 

In both cases, American troops faced insurgents whose most lethal weapon was the improvised explosive device (IED): explosives rigged to radio transmitters, timers, or motion sensors (stripped from washing machines, security floodlights, and garage openers) and buried along routes taken by American patrols. 

The Department of Defense spent $19 billion researching the best way to detect IEDs before settling on an old technology: dogs. Lucca was one of over 2,500 dogs trained to associate the scent of explosives with a reward, teamed up with a soldier-handler, and sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. 

Lucca had gone on over 400 missions before an explosion forced veterinarians to amputate her leg. She now lives with the family of Staff Sgt. Chris Willingham, her original handler. 

After September 11, demand for bomb-sniffing dogs exploded. Although America has reduced its footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of the Islamic State and events like the Boston Marathon bombing have increased interest at home for bomb-sniffing dogs. 

More than a decade after planes hit the World Trade Center, can man’s best friend deliver us freedom from fear?

War Games

You know that dog you see at the park? The one that is obsessed with playing fetch and approaches everyone in the park in search of a belly rub? That dog has the perfect personality for bomb detection.

The process of training a bomb dog, also known as an explosives detection canine, is a simple association game. Trainers expose dogs to the smells of different explosives and give them a reward—usually a favorite ball or chew toy—every time they find it. As one trainer explains, “Explosives are kind of like baking materials.” Just as milk, egg, and flour is in almost every cake, a limited number of core ingredients can be found in nearly every explosive. Since the dog can smell those core ingredients, no bomb should get past a well-trained nose. 

Handlers train dogs to sit when they smell something. The dogs look excited when they sit; they know they’re about to play. In Afghanistan, Corporal Juan Rodriguez kept a chew toy in his pocket for Lucca.

Dogs’ amazing noses allow them to detect bombs, but the best bomb dog is not the one with the best sense of smell. Its confidence, work ethic, and interest in rewards is far more important. 

Charlie McGinty is VP of Sales at AMK9, where he works with the Vapor Wake program, which trains “Vapor Wake” dogs that can track the scent of explosives in the air to a person carrying a bomb in a backpack. They’re elite bomb dogs. Just as not every soldier makes it through Army Ranger school, not every dog makes it through AMK9’s training process. 

The process starts with Puppies Behind Bars, a program that tasks prison inmates with raising military and service dogs. (Like many other organizations, AMK9 previously asked volunteers to raise the puppies, but families kept spoiling the dogs.) The goal is to socialize the 8-week-old puppies and expose them to different environments. Trained inmates take the dogs to different parts of the prison: along the bunks, through the cafeteria, and into manufacturing areas. 

“The most important trait is confidence,” says Gloria Gilbert Stoga, president of Puppies Behind Bars. Dogs that hesitate in dark corners or shy away from strangers don’t make it through the program and are adopted as pets. 

a man and a woman jogging with a dog

Lucca with her family. Photo credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York

Dogs that graduate from Puppies Behind Bars and win the approval of AMK9’s staff learn the scent of explosives. “We look for dogs with high energy and a desire to work,” explains Daniel Hayter of K9 Global Training Academy, which also trains bomb and other dogs. “We look at how they respond to rewards. If they don’t, we don’t take the dog.”

This is why trainers are not concerned with finding the dog with the best sense of smell. Instead, labradors and shepherds are the breeds of choice, because they are so energetic and playful. A dog that acts like a cat—by acting independent and turning its nose up at affection—would fail out of AMK9 right away, even if it has a great nose. 

McGinty describes the training process as very positive. “It’s a game to them,” he says. “Let’s go have some fun today.” This stands in surprising contrast with tough regimens advocated by many pet trainers. “Dog whisperer” Cesar Milan, for example, says that dogs are pack animals and teaches dog owners to assert themselves as pack leader. Other trainers tell owners to play the role of cub mom and shake their dogs.

Bomb dog training comes out of a military tradition. But other than exceptions like getting dogs used to the sounds of gunfire, the training is fun and based entirely on positive reinforcement. “I was in the military for years,” Hayter says. “Positive reinforcement was all that was used. It’s more reliable and more effective.”

Dogs search for explosives because the training, which must be constantly maintained, associates praise and the pooch’s favorite toys with finding the scent. But trainers have to be careful about teaching dogs false associations. “If every time we give [a backpack with the scent of explosives] to someone who is 30-years-old,” McGinty says, “that dog will quit thinking that an old person or a kid could” have a bomb.

AMK9’s solution is to recruit a diverse group to help with the training. The company finds people at malls or from labor finders of every ethnicity, gender, and age—including little boys and girls—to pose as bombers and bystanders. “We’ll put a backpack on a grandmother sometimes,” McGinty says. “Or an employee’s kids.”

The Vapor Wake program at AMK9 lasts 8-10 weeks, and McGinty says that around 60-70% of the dogs pass their final test and become Vapor Wake dogs. (Although the number of dogs that make it through the training can vary with each batch.) Daniel Hayter, whose Global Training Academy dogs primarily serve as bomb or narcotics dogs for American law enforcement, says his training process weeds out around 25% of dogs that are not trainable enough. 

The Bomb Dog Business

In 2013, iK9 founder Tim Dunnigan told Bloomberg that he wanted to build a $200 million business.

That would be a bold prediction in any industry, and fifteen years ago, it would have seemed implausible. But September 11 changed that. 

The bomb dog business is similar to the insurance industry and the arms trade: disaster is good for business. The terrorist attacks immediately focused every security professional on the question of how to detect smuggled or hidden explosives—a question that became pressing during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

In 2000, MSA Security, one of the largest providers of bomb dogs, had 15 teams of dogs. By 2013, Kenneth Furton, chairman of the Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines, told Smithsonian that around 10,000 detection canines are at work—although more dogs sniff out narcotics than explosives. That same year, Bloomberg estimated the size of the market at $400 to $700 million. 

The government contracts for bomb dogs can be large. A 2010 report revealed that the State Department spent $24 million each year on canine services just for its Baghdad Embassy. As of 2013, MSA had signed $48 million worth of contracts with the City of New York and additional contracts to provide bomb dogs to patrol the New York Stock Exchange and the ports of New York and New Jersey.

This doesn’t mean training bomb dogs is incredibly lucrative. Typical bomb dogs cost from $5,000 to upwards of $25,000. But after paying breeders thousands of dollars for purebreds or specifically selected mixes, that’s not much margin for months of full-time training and care. 

Nor is the $100 or more an hour cost of leasing a bomb dog as substantial once you consider the salary of the handler, who will often need to work early mornings and late nights, and the ongoing training the dog needs. Daniel Hayter says that Global Training Academy usually only starts training a canine once a client is lined up due to the expense of keeping dogs. 

Despite all the interest over the past decade, bomb dogs are still something of a commodity. The certifications that do exist are not standardized across the industry, and it’s hard for outsiders to evaluate the quality of bomb dogs they hire. Paul Waggoner of the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn University says that few training methods have been scientifically evaluated, and that many trainers essentially tell clients, “Trust me.” 

This does not just make it harder for trainers to charge for higher quality dogs; it’s a security risk. 

Airport travelers still face machines rather than dogs because the TSA failed at setting up a bomb dog program. In 2010, the State Department’s inspector general found that the dogs used to protect its staff in Iraq and Afghanistan were not tested (and perhaps not trained) properly. The report faulted staff for uncritically trusting the contractor that provided the dogs: Blackwater. In our discussion, Charles McGinty of AMK9 expressed concern about dog trainers that say they successfully train 100% of their dogs. To McGinty, that sounds like every soldier making it into the Marines. 

a soldier with a dog

Photo credit: Sgt. Joshua LaPere for the U.S. Army 

Trainers who pass too many dogs or agencies that don’t keep up canines’ training rarely face repercussions, however, because most dogs never find an explosive outside of a simulation. When Joshua Levine wrote about bomb dogs for Smithsonian, he kept expecting to hear about a “hero dog whose intrepid snuffling saved a busload of people.” The only example he found was Brandy: a German shepherd who sniffed out a bomb on a plane in 1972 after an anonymous caller asked for a $2 million ransom.

In war zones, where explosives are dangerously plentiful, bomb dogs have won military commendations for discovering IEDs and weapons caches. As for the dogs patrolling our baseball stadiums, harbors, and political institutions: Even as the managers of bomb dog businesses promote their ability to prevent the next Boston Marathon bombing, they acknowledge that their dogs’ primary role is as a deterrent. 

Ten years of war have moved the industry toward more stringent methodology and specialized products. Auburn University’s Canine Performance Sciences program is training dogs to lie still in MRI machines so researchers can study them as they sniff—and ultimately better select and train canines. Catalyzed by a failed shoe bombing attempt by a self-declared al-Qaeda operative in December 2001, Auburn researchers also developed the Vapor Wake concept, which they patented and partnered with AMK9 to commercialize. A Vapor Wake Team—a trained dog and training for a handler—costs $45,000 to produce.

Handlers once directed all detection dogs on a leash; now dogs can be trained to search off-leash. “We used to talk about the limitations of the dogs,” Jay Crafter, a trainer at K2 Solutions told the New York Post this year. “We don’t talk about that anymore.”

Detection dogs are used for many purposes—dogs sniff out contraband cell phones in prisons and illegal produce sent across the border—but the main markets are America’s two eternal wars: the War on Drugs for narcotics dogs and the War on Terror for bomb dogs.  

Yet when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, demand for bomb dogs cooled. “It was not good for business,” McGinty tells us. “Our contracts wound down.” 

In 2013, however, the Boston Marathon bombing served as a terrible reminder of how bomb dogs could potentially prevent tragedies. One provider of bomb dogs told the press, “Our phones were ringing off the hook after Boston.” Since bomb dogs had swept the race’s finish line before the Tsarnaev brothers placed their homemade bombs, AMK9 staff appeared on news shows to explain how Vapor Wake canines could trace bombers carrying explosives in backpacks.

But it was the Islamic State that really set AMK9’s and other bomb dog providers’ phones ringing. “Demand for Vapor Wake has definitely increased,” says McGinty. “With ISIS and so many threats around the world, there is almost a shortage of canines.” Current customers for Vapor Wake dogs include New York City’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, Amtrak, the Chicago Police Department, Capitol Police, and many sports stadiums. McGinty says that security directors tell him every day, “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when the next terrorist bombing will occur.”

America clearly wants more bomb dogs. “There’s always a demand for them,” Daniel Hayter tells us when we ask if K9 Global Training Academy faces stiff competition. “I think with this demand for canines,” McGinty adds, “there won’t be enough dogs.”


Bomb dogs are by far the public’s favorite development of the War on Terror.

When Edward Snowden revealed the full extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the revelation ignited heated, front-page criticism of the agency. 

When riot police arrived at the Ferguson protests in camouflage with armored humvees and assault rifles, the militarization of America’s police departments came under scrutiny. Comedian Jon Oliver mocked the city of Keene, New Hampshire, for requesting a “military-grade armored personnel truck” and citing its pumpkin festival as a potential target for terrorist attacks. 

When reporters cover bomb dogs that served in Iraq, they call them heroes and gush over the cuddly crime fighters. “Yet another reason why dogs are awesome,” Anderson Cooper said at the end of a segment on AMK9’s Vapor Wake dogs. 

a dog with its mouth open

Photo credit: Michael Pereckas

Alongside closed circuit televisions, trucks, and metal detectors, bomb dogs are eligible to be purchased with funds from anti-terrorism grants like the $587 million a year Urban Areas Security Initiative. But bomb dogs—with their high cost and need for handlers and regular training—can’t be ubiquitous. That requires a machine, which is why scientists keep working on devices that can identify explosives as reliably as a dog’s nose. 

Researchers have developed machines that can identify several common explosives. But they will not replace bomb dogs anytime soon. The company with the most developed product on the market recently told the New York Times, “We see our technology as complementary” to dogs.

Expect to see a lot more bomb dogs in the future.