Rotary learns the ins and outs of sniffing out an explosive device


GRAFTON—Did you know that a dog's sense of smell is anywhere between 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than that of a human? This information was shared with the Grafton Rotary Club on Wednesday, when they welcomed Lieutenant Joseph Ritchie to their meeting.

Ritchie is a police officer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), specializing in their Explosive Detection K-9 Program.

He shared that the program with established in 1989, and covers four different locations, with the closest being in Clarksburg.

According to Ritchie, within the FBI Explosive Detection K-9 Program in West Virginia, there are four teams. The FBI will receive the dogs when they are about two years old, and will work them for six to seven years.

“We have four dogs, which are all Labs. Each dog has his own handler that they train and work beside of,” explained Ritchie.

Ritchie further explained that these dogs are trained to deliver passive alerts and are food rewarded. He said that while drug dogs are trained to scratch at the area where they are picking up the scent of drugs, the FBI’s explosive detection K-9s are trained to sit and put their noses to the area.

“We really didn’t think it would be a good idea for our dogs to be scratching at an explosive device,” joked Ritchie.

In the event that the dog has found the explosive in question, he is rewarded with food.

“Some people might think we don’t feed the dogs, and that it’s cruel, but that’s really not the case. Our dogs eat and they are very healthy. They just aren’t the kind of dogs that you can throw a bowl of food to and let them chow down,” said Ritchie. “We have to make sure that they associate food with explosives.”

He added that even on the handler’s days off, the dog still has to work and train, in order to not loose the association of food and explosives.

According to Ritchie, Each of the four K-9s lives with his handler. They are not kept outside, but rather welcomed into the handler’s home and very well taken care of.

He also revealed that after the dog has been “worked out” he could retire.

“Once the dog is retired they don’t have to work or train anymore, and he can eat all day, like my own dog does,” Ritchie laughed.

The FBI gets their dogs from the CIA, who sees dogs once a month to check on how they are doing, and for a one-day training program.

Each dog goes through an extensive eight to ten week training program with his or her handler. During the training, the dogs have to sniff things like packages and suitcases, to find where the explosive has been hidden.

“There are approximately 19,000 different explosives that are classified into six different categories,” commented Ritchie. “However, explosives all have the same component to make them ‘go boom’ which is what the dog will pick up on.”

He shared that during one of the trainings, the dogs have to sniff through a wall of cinderblocks that have paint cans sitting inside of them, one of the paint cans hold an explosive device.

In another, the handler and K-9 are sent into an area in which an explosive has been hidden however, the handler isn’t even aware of its location. This training exercise teaches the handler to take cues from his furry partner.

“The particular odor that a dog can pick up as being an explosive can be compared to the odor of a skunk to humans. No matter what, we know that when we smell it, we are smelling skunk, and that’s how it works for the dogs. No matter how the explosive was put together, the components used let of an odor that the dog just knows means trouble,” Ritchie stated.

According to Ritchie some of the duties of the K-9 program include vehicle sweeps, and foot patrols, as well as patrolling sporting events, like the Super Bowl, along with fairs, festivals, and bigger scale parades.

“I am so proud of my team and these dogs. They work hard and train even harder, and these dogs are just great, they have so much personality,” he added.

The dogs also attend community outreach programs, where kids get the chance to interact with the dogs, which are very friendly.

“These dogs are truly great. You can take them anywhere, to schools or meetings just like this, and they remain calm,” remarked Ritchie.

He concluded his presentation by reiterating how proud he is of the K-9 program and the men that work within the program.

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