San Diego police have expanded their counterterrorism efforts with smart dogs, as part of an initiative with the Department of Homeland Security and Johns Hopkins University.
Detection dogs trained to find explosives at crowded events are teaming up with the San Diego Police Department and DHS’ Advanced Strategic Research Agency.
"This program was in direct association with the Boston Marathon bombing and the Ariana Grande concert bombing," said SDPD Lt. Tony Lessa. "We wanted resources available to our department where we can utilize, in this case, dogs, to go into crowds, and detect the same type of explosives and same type of incidents that occurred in Boston and overseas."
The highly trained dogs work off-leash.
"They work better independently from the handler, and in large crowds it's less of a hindrance than having the dogs on a long leash," said SDPD K-9 Officer Scott Smith. "We need to be able to maintain some type of visual contact with the dog, in case they do alert."
The dogs sit when they detect an explosive and are rewarded with a toy by their handler.
"The goal is to put together a package which then the Department of Homeland Security can present to an agency anywhere in the country -- essentially give them a dog and all the literature and video they've gathered based on what we're doing here," Lessa told NBC 7.
DHS purchased the detection dogs for SDPD, and researchers with Johns Hopkins University have been working with the K-9 unit to collect data.
Several of SDPD's general service patrol dogs are cross-trained to detect explosives, but they usually search a place prior to an event.
The K-9 unit's bomb sniffing dogs easily move through crowds and are very friendly.
"People are not intimidated by them which is what we want," said Lessa. "We want dogs that are very friendly to people who are not aggressive in any way."
The dogs have swept every major event in the last year -- from Comic Con to December Nights to Pride parades.
"These dogs are single purpose," said SDPD K-9 Officer Chuck Marciniak. "Their only skill set is to detect the presence of explosives."
And when the K-9s aren't working venues, they're honing their detection skills at malls, colleges and other public places.
So far, the dogs have not alerted to any actual explosives.
Lessa said DHS selected SDPD because of its extensive K-9 unit -- one of the largest in the country -- and its in-house K-9 training staff.
The City of San Diego also has a lot of events that draw big crowds.
The bomb sniffing K-9s are trained using positive reinforcement, live with their handler, and have a close bond with their handler.
"He simply wants to please, and he just wants to have fun," said Marciniak.
The dogs' primary motivation is a toy, a ball at the end of a rope, and it's helping to keep San Diego safe.