At the sight of his leash, Baxter explodes out of his crate. The leash means work, work means reward, and that’s Baxter’s entire reason for being. The adolescent yellow Labrador retriever has only eight months of training, so he yanks and skitters more than a fully trained dog. But once his handler clicks the lead onto his collar, he raises his nose and swivels his head side to side, sampling air currents, until he smells something he recognizes. Then his behavior visibly changes. Baxter is “on scent” and quickens his pace, his head and tail up, narrowing in on a cluster of vehicles.
We’re on the campus of Auburn University, about 45 minutes south of the base of operations for the school’s Canine Detection Research Institute. An outgrowth of Auburn’s veterinary school, the CDRI trains an average of 200 handler-and-dog teams a year for clients such as Amtrak, the U.S. Marshals Service, and smaller law enforcement agencies. Since opening its doors in 2001, it’s built a reputation as a center for rigorous canine science. The CDRI’s associate director, Paul Waggoner, looks on as Baxter works one vehicle after another, quickly sniffing in the areas he’s been taught to focus on—the gas tank, fender seams, and creases by the trunk, any spot where vapor could be escaping. Suddenly he sits next to one car. His handler reaches under a bumper and pulls out a small pouch of TNT. The whole process took maybe 90 seconds. “Think of it this way: How long would it take us to clear this lot?” says Craig Angle, who oversees canine fitness at the CDRI. “We’d have to tear those cars apart. Dogs are force multipliers.”