Origins of the TSA Explosive Detection Dogs Program

Origins of the TSA Explosive Detection Dogs Program

Dallas – Back in 1971, two extraordinary canines, a German Shepherd named Brandy and a Labrador named Sally, made their mark as legends by utilizing their exceptional sense of smell. These remarkable dogs were trained to identify hidden pipe bombs and dynamite sticks that were saturated with highly explosive odors. Their training was part of a limited-warfare research program conducted at the University of Mississippi.

Fast forward to the present day, and we have witnessed significant advancements in aviation security. The use of explosive detection dogs like Brandy and Sally, along with advanced screening technology, has played a pivotal role in enhancing security measures. These highly skilled dogs, combined with the latest screening techniques, have become an integral part of airport security.

Today, there are over 700 Explosive Detection Canine Teams deployed worldwide. These teams can be found working diligently at airports, sports stadiums, entertainment venues, and transportation hubs. Their presence ensures a heightened level of security and provides peace of mind to travelers and the general public alike.

TWA Boeing 707. Photo: Michel Gilliand GFDL 1.2
TWA Boeing 707. Photo: Michel Gilliand, GFDL 1.2

Sniffer-Dog Foils Attempted Airliner Bomb Attack


In 1972, Brandy happened to be at New York’s JFK International Airport (JFK) with New York City police officers who were conducting a demonstration of the capabilities of canines in explosive detection. Little did they know, Brandy would become the hero of the day.

On the same day, an anonymous bomb threat led to Trans World Airlines (TWA) grounding departing aircraft at JFK. The caller demanded a ransom of US$2 million to prevent a bomb attack and potential loss of life. At the time, bomb-sniffing dogs were a rarity among police forces, and the utilization of such dogs at airports was non-existent.

To ensure the safety of its planes, TWA began grounding flights and conducting searches for explosives. One flight that had already been in the air for 15 minutes had to turn back to JFK for inspection. Another TWA aircraft, heading towards a runway, was notified of the bomb scare and had to return to the apron for searching.

This is the German Shepherd, and her explosive detection abilities proved invaluable. Led by New York City Police officers, Brandy boarded the TWA plane and, in the cockpit, identified a black briefcase. Brandy sat down next to it, even though the briefcase was marked “Crew” and appeared normal. However, Brandy’s instinct was correct.

Inside the briefcase, police found C-4 explosives capable of causing significant damage. A detective from the New York City Police Department promptly removed and disarmed the bomb just five minutes before it was set to explode, averting a crisis.

Brandy, the unsung hero of the day, was not even a regular at the airport. At that time, the aviation sector did not commonly utilize canines for explosive detection. Brandy’s heroic act highlighted the remarkable ability of canines to identify explosives and potentially harmful substances.

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TSA Explosives Detection Canine Team Program


The Explosives Detection Canine Team Program, managed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has been a symbol of canine excellence for over 30 years. Initially falling under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Civil Aviation Security, the program now operates within the TSA’s Aviation Operations Law Enforcement Division.

Explosive detection canine teams have proven to be highly effective due to their exceptional mobility and reliable detection rates. As a result, their usage has expanded to include searching areas in response to bomb threats within aviation and mass transit systems. Moreover, the presence of sniffer dogs acts as a strong deterrent to potential terrorists and criminals.

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The TSA primarily utilizes German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers for their explosives detection canine teams. Breeders and canine sellers across the United States and Europe carefully select these breeds based on their temperament and heightened sensory capabilities.

Before joining the program, dogs undergo rigorous screening to ensure they are in good health, intelligent, highly motivated, and capable of detecting necessary odors. Inspired by Australia’s Customs Service Breeding Program, the TSA also operates a breeding program for Labrador Retrievers at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

Foster families raise puppies in the San Antonio area until they enter formal training. Additionally, TSA dogs are kenneled at the homes of their handlers, and many retire to their handlers’ homes after serving in explosives detection work for 10 to 12 years.


Featured image: Ben, from the TSA Explosives Detection Canine Team. Photo TSA. Article sources: TSA, The New York Times, MSA Security

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