This spring, Labrador retrievers wearing virtual leashes will begin nosing around for explosives to make work easier for federal law enforcement personnel, according to contracting papers.
The five dogs, which will be delivered to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives starting in May, are part of an experiment conceived earlier this year to try electronically guiding canines from afar, ATF officials said. The bureau awarded instructor Pat Nolan, from Ponderosa Kennels, a $32,500 contract for "training Labrador retrievers for directional control work through use of remote-collars . . . at extended distances from a handler.”
E-collars, sometimes derided as "shock collars," control dogs with pulses that should feel like small taps on the neck.
The Smithsburg, Md.-based kennel supplying the dogs was selected in part because it is near ATF’s canine operations center in Front Royal, Va., officials said, thereby reducing transportation and lodging costs that would be incurred with more distant vendors. Ponderosa Kennels was the only nearby vendor that could supply five sniffer Labs accustomed to e-collars within three months, according to a justification for awarding the contract without competition. The purchase is expected to save about $15,000 in recruiting costs.
"The temperament, drives and collective traits required to perform this specialized mission necessitates selection of dogs that exceed industry standards for conventional on-leash detection canines," the papers state. The agency’s own canine trainers, who have evaluated hundreds of "improvised explosive device," or IED, detector dogs, found that those animals exhibit common characteristics, officials explained.
The Marine Corps Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Command also have employed Nolan to train e-collared dogs for explosive detection work, according to the contract justification, which was signed last week.
"Rather than tugging on the leash or pushing the dog into position, we will use low-level e-collar taps to apply very slight but noticeable pressure that encourages him to act," Nolan says of the digital direction technique on his business’s website. "This system of using the e-collar is even gentler than traditional leash training methods, offers increased reliability and, because the e-collar provides instant feedback to your dog, it accelerates his learning."