The Covid-19 pandemic played a key role in the global supply chain deadlock of the past 18 months, which has disrupted trade and fueled a global cost crisis. And it seems that no pipeline has escaped its impact. After years of trying to raise awareness about a shortage of dogs with the necessary genetic, physical and emotional traits to work as bomb-detection canines in the United States, experts say the pandemic-related unrest has further complicated the situation.
The US gets 85 to 90 percent of its sniffer dogs from abroad, particularly from European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. Dogs receive advanced training in a number of subspecialties, including bomb and drug detection and search and rescue. But breeding, genetics, environment and training during early life are all crucial to breeding dogs with the mental and physical attributes to protect them at work and enable a good quality of life.
“The dog nose is the best technology we have for locating explosives, so we need a very consistent and high-quality source of dogs,” said Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations at the American Kennel Club. “We were always talking about, ‘Well, what if there’s a global crisis or geopolitical issues, we’re not going to be able to get all these dogs that we’re importing from Europe,’ and then it happened.”
In congressional testimony in March 2016, Cindy Otto, executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, alerted the Senate Homeland Security Committee to these risks. “By outsourcing our national safety requirements, we are relinquishing control over the type of dogs, the health of the dogs and the early training of the dogs,” she said at the time. “We also run the risk of supply being interrupted due to politics, disaster or illness.”
Today, she says she sees progress toward a growing domestic supply of sniffer dogs in the US. Expanded federal contracts for projects at the Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Laboratory, Auburn University, Gallant Technologies, K2 Solutions and others are aimed at developing new technologies and procedures to support a larger domestic scenthound breeding network. And programs like the American Kennel Club’s “Patriotic Puppy Program” work to educate existing American breeders about the requirements and criteria for targeting detection dogs specifically. But she adds that progress is incremental and will take years of fundamental work to pay off.
“I wish we were much further along, but the pandemic has definitely slowed research, slowed down all programs,” Otto told WIRED. “It limited the influx of dogs from abroad and slowed progress in this country to find alternatives — it beat us all up.”
Last month, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a nearly 100-page report report about working dogs and the need for federal agencies to better protect their health and welfare. The GOA says the U.S. federal government had about 5,100 working dogs, including sniffer dogs, across three federal agencies as of February. Another 420 dogs “served the federal government in 24 contractor-run programs across eight departments and two independent agencies,” the GAO report says.