Magazine article National Defense

Navy Researchers Probing Secrets of Fido's Nose

Magazine article National Defense

Navy Researchers Probing Secrets of Fido's Nose

Article excerpt

* Because scientists are still struggling to develop technologies that can sniff out explosives as effectively as the canine nose, the armed forces in the meantime have turned to man's best friend for help in countering hidden bombs.

"The best sensor ... on the battlefield right now to find homemade explosives is the nose of a Labrador," Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told reporters in Washington.

The Corps is deploying to Afghanistan hundreds of Labrador retrievers to help infantry squads track down improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, before they detonate. Sensors typically find only half of the devices; dog teams on the other hand are detecting 80 percent of them, said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, who directs the Defense Department's Joint IED Defeat Organization.

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To support the effort, the Office of Naval Research is seeking help from industry, academia and the working dog community to demystify canine olfaction and to better train both dog and human handlers how to out-sniff the enemy.

"We haven't explored very much about dogs and cognition," said Lisa Albuquerque, manager of ONR's naval expeditionary dog science and technology program. "As humans understand what capabilities dogs have, I just see there's an opportunity there to take a look at all the different ways technology can help us to work with dogs, and help dogs work with us."

The research office wants to fund initiatives to improve the nutrition and care of the canines, develop technologies that can measure and mitigate their stress levels in combat zones, and explore sensors and systems that they could carry onto the battlefield, among others.

Training is a key focus. Inconsistency on the part of trainers causes problems for the IED detector dogs when they are learning to target specific odors. One possible solution is to eliminate the person at the end of the leash and rely solely on computer technology, said Albuquerque. For example, instead of a human leading the dog through repetitive find-the-target-odor exercises, the dog could enter the room by itself and explore the place as it naturally would. When the dog correctly identifies the target odor, the virtual trainer would reward it by lobbing a ball into the room. …

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