The Homeland Security Department announced this week it would be outfitting some border patrol dogs with smart collars, automatically monitoring their vital signs and notifying handlers in case of emergency.
The $198,000 award, made to smart-collar manufacturer PetPace, is part of DHS’ broader investigation into how wearable devices can be used to enhance the efficacy of the K-9 units used by the Border Patrol and the Office of Field Operations that are often responsible for sniffing out bombs, illegal contraband and trafficked persons. The initial pilot would collect a dog’s temperature, pulse and respiratory patterns, among other data points, to better understand how canine agents perform in extreme conditions.
Nextgov chatted with Damian Montes, director of Customs and Border Protection’s Canine Program, about how information from the smart collars might help his staff deploy the dogs safer and more efficiently. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov: Why is it so important for handlers to have real-time insight into a canine’s vital signs?
Damian Montes: A lot of what we do, and where we operate, is in austere environments: the Northern border, where it’s extremely cold, or the Southern border, where it’s extremely hot and dry. It’s a very important aspect—maintaining and understanding the canine and what he’s showing us—as far as behavior.
If the dog becomes lethargic or is not performing to normal standards, there’s something we need to quickly identify [sometimes by] pressing on the dog’s gums and counting how quickly the blood returns, whether it’s a pulse, whether it’s checking a dog’s level of hydration by lifting the scruff of the dog’s fur and seeing how quickly it resumes its normal state, whether it’s [using] a rectal thermometer.
[Wearables] give us an opportunity now to monitor these vitals through technology ... after the training day or training week is completed. [We can] collect that data and sit down with our veterinarians and our training staff and determine what the conditions were [and] were we within the target range. Are we seeing extreme vitals in certain areas? Where do we have to kind of look at how do we improve our training?
Ultimately, [the goal is] utilizing the canine in the most optimal way without causing any negative health conditions.
Nextgov: Is the goal really just to protect the canines or could it also help human agents identify the physiological indicators of when a canine has discovered something illegal?
Montes: The intent behind this is for the health and welfare of the canine, so now we’ll have secondary data points other than just the physical and observatory of evaluating the canine’s performance.
Nextgov: So then, how might you adjust how the canines are deployed, or how they’re trained, using that information?
Montes: Depending on what we’re able to identify ... are we working the dog too much? Is the exposure time in the environment too long? Because the dog is going to want to work; that’s its natural drive.
There are so many variables in our environment—the weather we have, the breed. Some dogs have shorter hair, some dogs have longer hair. So we can ... place our dogs in environments where they’re going to operate optimally: certain breeds in certain areas with certain behavioral traits.
Nextgov: Will a smart collar free up the handler to do other things instead of manually monitoring a dog’s vitals?
Montes: We don’t want our handlers to become dependent on technology, where it takes away that bond between the handler and the canine. We want this to be a secondary form of data collection because what we’re doing right now works really well.
Editor's Note: The headline and article was updated to reflect the scope of the pilot.