A Nose for Cargo: Canine screening may become cargo security’s best friend


They have become such a common sight in airports, we hardly even notice them anymore. Four-legged sentinels named “Oz” or “Champ” or “Scout” have been walking the terminals in airports throughout the world, using their astounding sense of smell to determine whether any passenger has been anywhere near even the faintest traces of explosive material.

The dogs are so skilled and efficient, when they are tasked with sniffing the long check-in lines, they are faster than the X-ray machines, so passengers usually move through the queues much more quickly. In most cases, the presence of a trained explosives-detection canine means that passengers are often able to keep their shoes on and their laptops in their bags. Since most people like dogs in general, they are often a calming and reassuring presence for passengers who may be nervous about the safety of air travel.

But this very public realm of the trained “bomb-sniffing dog,” as they are often called, is about to get a lot bigger behind the scenes of the air cargo supply chain.

In December 2018, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) approved the long-awaited Third Party Canine program, which is a variation of the previously established Certified Cargo Screening Facility (CCSF) program for forwarders and airlines. Under the program, for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA will allow private companies to train canines and their human handlers to take part in the screening of all air cargo that is loaded onto passenger planes flying within or coming to the United States, which has been mandatory since 2010.

With the help of these privately trained canine teams, the universe of canines in explosives detection is expected to rise exponentially throughout the country. Previously, these dogs were trained only by law enforcement agencies or other government-run entities. But now that the open market is free to take part – as long as the dog and handler teams pass the rigorous TSA certification process – the competition is expected to be fierce and will continue to drive the costs down even further.

Chris Daniels, vice president of corporate strategy for security canine vendor Global K-9 Protection Group (GK9PG), said he already has signed contracts with 11 forwarders and carriers. “We were the first company approved through the program in December and we had teams screening for clients the next week,” he said.

The program is only a few months old, but some of the early adopters, like forwarder Shipco Airfreight, with facilities in Los Angeles and New Jersey, have been eagerly awaiting the day they could deploy the dogs.

As a CCSF since 2010, Shipco knows the limitations of using X-ray technology or trace detection methods using large, expensive scanning units. Cargo arriving on skids, for instance, must be broken down into individual pieces so they can be passed through the machines and then reassembled after scanning.

Trained dogs, however, can sniff around the sides of an assembled skid and get more than enough information about what odors are contained inside. “We’re talking about 15 seconds a skid,” Daniels said. “In fact, we humans are probably slowing the dog down.” “We’ve been looking for an alternative, a more practical way to do this,” said Kim Ekstroem, COO for global airfreight at Shipco. “And canine-detection is absolutely that.”

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