at Auburn

by Mike Jernigan


Black Lab with handler at airport

For more than 30 years, the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Canine Performance Sciences program has been recognized as an international leader in the field of detection canine research and innovation, working to find new ways to improve upon and leverage the olfactory abilities of dogs to detect everything from disease to drugs to explosives.

Black lab running up steps

That expertise was a key factor when Auburn was recently awarded a contract by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) as the recipient of a contract that, sustained over a 5-year period, will be the single largest research contract awarded to Auburn University at almost $24 million. The contract supports research in the recently established Auburn University Detection Canine Science, Innovation, Technology and Education program, also known as DCSITE, which will serve the DHS S&T mission as the primary resource for expertise in all areas of detection canine sciences. This multidisciplinary program will promote continual, science-based and science-driven improvement in and development of best practices required for domestic production of detection canines needed to identify and mitigate emerging threats. It will also centralize research, innovation, training and outreach efforts in the detection canine sciences field.

“Auburn’s CPS program has become a recognized center of excellence,” said Dr. Frank “Skip” Bartol, College of Veterinary Medicine associate dean for research and graduate studies and DCSITE program project investigator. “From original efforts aimed broadly at working dog populations, the program has focused over the last 15 years on detection canine sciences — developing and refining breeding, development and training protocols for dogs tasked to detect many types of threats to national security and public safety.”

As the variety and number of security threats have increased in recent years, detection canines have proven to be an increasingly important counterterrorism tool in support of the DHS S&T mission to safeguard national security and public safety. They are widely deployed in airports, cargo and mail facilities and with law enforcement for real-time, advanced threat detection. No other detection technology currently available can locate and track-to-source small quantity odors in real time, providing critical threat intelligence and enabling rapid deployment of countermeasures to reduce risk.

While a dog’s nose may seem low tech to the average person, the science behind detection canines is remarkably complex. Due to this complexity, DCSITE aims to integrate the best scientific practices in analytical chemistry, genetics, genomics, reproduction, veterinary and sports medicine, olfactory neuroscience, behavior and cognition, metrology and engineering to accomplish its mission. Bartol said DCSITE will utilize that wide range of expertise to focus on three key components — the dogs, operational dynamics and targets of detection. 

Black lab jumping up side of plane

Without the dogs and their amazing olfactory abilities, there would be no DCSITE. But there are many factors that affect the performance of detector dogs on the front lines at airports or in law enforcement working environments. Those components include — but are certainly not limited to — the animal’s overall health, the genetics and phenomics that define its olfactory abilities and performance capabilities, and the training that best prepares these dogs to focus on the task at hand, which is the detection of specific threats. 

“Dogs have evolved over millions of years to use their sense of smell for everything from detecting prey to identifying friend and foe,” said Bartol. “Their perception of the world is driven to a significant degree by their highly evolved sense of smell. So the key to producing successful detection canines is to breed and train puppies in a way that allows them to best take advantage of such remarkable evolutionary advantages.”

Yellow lab at Toomer's Corner

The second component of DCSITE, operational dynamics, also includes training techniques and standards, but focuses more on the critical interaction between the dog and its human trainers and handlers. This component will develop ways to better ensure that handlers on the front line can communicate with their dogs effectively — in other words, that the handlers interpret correctly what their canine partners are trying to tell them. 

“No mechanical device is more sensitive than a canine nose,” Bartol stated, “but dogs obviously can’t talk. Effective communication between dogs and handlers can sometimes be the weakest link in the chain, so it’s important that ways be found to constantly improve on this critical human-animal interface. That means developing more effective training methods for handlers and their dogs, or even developing technology and artificial intelligence to assist them.”

Finally, a third major focus of DCSITE will be on the targets of detection — the hazardous materials that are often the weapons of choice for terrorists to inflict harm. It’s an incredibly complex area, involving everything from analyzing the chemical or biological composition of actual and potential threat agents to studying the properties of liquids or vapors in various environmental conditions. Such knowledge is not only critical to effective response in emergency situations, but also in preparing to avoid such situations through safe, but realistic training. 

“It is important that detector dogs be trained on real target odors,” noted Bartol. “This can be challenging, since target odors are emitted by potentially dangerous substances. Development and validation of training aids that protect trainers and dogs while training on real target odors represents another important focus of the program.”

Brown lab staring at boxes

On a similar note, DCSITE was created as a resource to ensure the nation does everything possible to prepare for potential threats and, while it will be anchored in the College of Veterinary Medicine and led by the CPS program, the endeavor also represents a collaborative effort involving subject matter experts from multiple colleges, as well as supporting educational and technical units at Auburn. DCSITE’s capabilities and national footprint will be further leveraged through targeted external partnerships, involving subject matter experts at several U.S. academic institutions, private research enterprises and national laboratories.

“CPS is the foundation, but it’s important to note this is both a university-wide and nationwide effort,” Bartol emphasized. “DCSITE would not exist without Auburn’s recognized expertise across a variety of disciplines. No single Auburn college or support unit could pull it off alone. But the dimensions of the task are so enormous and the work is so important that not even one university could encompass it all. That’s why the involvement of other universities, research facilities and laboratories around the country is critical. We are all working together to make DCSITE a national resource with a vital role to play in America’s security.”