We humans have a small-but-regular assorment of bad individuals among us. We've developed a lot of techniques to identify the bad eggs. Our techniques are useful in varying degrees. But one of the best ways to save us from ourselves is to bring in a dog.
Despite amazing machines we've developed that can sniff the air for any indications of chemicals that are associated with bad intentions, none is yet as good as a dog's nose.
A few days ago, we were coming back from Italy and caught the new JetBlue non-stop from JFK to Reno. The airport was a mob scene, with thousands of summer travelers lining up to go through airport security. The TSA was doing their best to cope. (I wouldn't have that job for anything.)
As the line grew, they suddenly interrupted the routine and stopped all the inspections. The crowds piled up. We couldn't tell why they would suspend the searches. The Airtrain and cabs and shuttles and Uber drivers kept dropping off travelers, and they flowed into the JetBlue terminal with no place to go except to get in the line, which went back and forth through the maze they'd set up to organize a huge crowd.
After 30 minutes of no activity, we finally got a hint of why they'd stopped the inspections. A Department of Homeland Security officer appeared with a German Shorthair Pointer, one of the preferred breeds (along with Belgian Malinois and Labs) that they train to sniff out explosives.
The dog had a DHS vest on. The handler took her around the edges of the maze that contained the crowd, letting the dog get familiar with the ambient scents of the airport. Then the handler brought the dog to a place adjacent to where the people in line would pass through once they started moving.
Other officers shouted out instructions to the crowd.
"Do not pet the dog. Do not reach out to the dog. Walk through the line. Keep moving."
They opened the end gate of the maze and let the people start to pass.
The dog stood, head down as if sniffing near the floor. The crowds moved past. The dog never looked up. Her job was just to sniff the air. If she smelled any of the scents she was trained to notice, she'd sit down next to her handler.
The huge crowd all walked past the dog, single file. The dog stared at the floor, her nostrils flexing. Her focus was intense. She radiated intelligence.
It was an impressive scene. Hundreds of travelers and an entire airport terminal were shut down. Whether or not the system would restart was dependent on the response of a single dog.
We eventually got past the dog's inspection. The flights eventually continued.
The travelers were of course worried. Having a DHS dog brought in to assess a crowd suggested that the TSA/DHS had acquired some disturbing information. On the other hand, when the DHS dog didn't "alert," it made us all feel much safer.
We can know that there are armed Federal Air Marshals incognito on the planes. But that does us no good if there is something really bad on the plane. So, in the end, the giant operation that is an airport comes down to a single dog, focused, well-trained. An animal with the concentration, and smarts, and a nose so powerful that it can detect the equavalent of a half teaspoon of sugar (or whatever else) in an Olympic swimming pool of water.
Let's all give thanks to dogs.