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Bomb sniffing dog is man's best friend, by a nose

July 16, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Martin Gallery, a National Park Service ranger, kneels next to Samson, one of only three trained K-9 explosives dogs in the United States that has been partnered with a uniformed park service ranger.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT, Md. — He's a big dog.

That's the first thing you notice as Samson enters the room — all 130 pounds of a solidly built black Labrador retriever.

But everything about him demands attention, from his sleek fur to his curiosity and energy.

It's his nose, however, that makes Samson special.

He's a K-9 explosives dog. And if ever there were a man's best friend, it's Samson.

His job is to sniff out bombs, zeroing in on even the slightest trace of a scent. Although K-9 units aren't unusual, Samson has a special distinction.

He's one of only three trained explosive dogs in the United States that has been partnered with a uniformed National Park Service ranger.

In Samson's case, his handler is Martin Gallery, a park ranger who works out of the C&O Canal National Historical Park office at Cushwa Basin in Williamsport.

The Lab lives with Gallery and has become like a family member. But he is owned by the U.S. government.

About five years ago, Gallery went through a 10-week, 400-hour bomb school K-9 program. During that time, he was paired with Samson, who also had to learn the ropes and pass a final exam.

Progress, Gallery said, came in halting steps.

First, the handler and dog, who was then about a year old, had to get to know each other.

There also was the question of whether the dog had the drive, willingness to learn and please, and the finely tuned nose to be able to sniff out explosives.

"Many dogs don't pass the criteria for bomb detection," Gallery said. "I had started out with a German shepherd that I owned who was a real good friend. But he didn't have the necessary characteristics."

Gallery said the training is so extensive, "when you're in the class, you think the dog is never going to get it. By week seven, I had my doubts. But one day, he came in and put it all together."

Much of the credit can be given to a toy.

During the training, explosive scents are imprinted into the dog's memory, Gallery said. They learn to associate detecting the smells of explosives with a coveted reward.

"Samson's reward was a kong — an oblong-shaped chew toy," Gallery said. "He wanted that toy so badly, he knew what he had to do to get it."

Gallery said some dogs are trained for dual purposes — to detect bombs and drugs, but Samson, who is 6 years old, has been trained only as an explosives dog.

Gallery, 66, said he's been with the National Park Service for 33 years and always wanted to work with a K-9 unit.

"Some years ago, my boss asked me if I was interested in participating in the training program in Montgomery County, Md.," he said. "But unfortunately, there were a series of situations, including the loss of our superintendent, that put the training on the back burner."

Several years later, Gallery said, he learned that the program again was being offered, and he received the approval of his superintendent to "go for it."

Gallery said Samson detects explosives through passive alert.

"He points, looks and sits," he said. "He lets me know he has detected a scent, but I don't defuse the bomb. We don't touch it in any way. Our job is to find it."

Scent of success

According to one veterinarian, Gallery said, a dog's receptor cells are 200 times more sensitive than those in a human nose.

"Some say the figures could be a million," he said. "Dogs can smell everything. If Samson goes to a certain area, to a certain object, there's no doubt in my mind that he's detected explosives."

Even masking an explosive with kerosene or perfume, or burying it overnight in 2 feet of snow won't mask the bomb, Gallery said.

"I think people feel more secure knowing what a dog like this can do," he said.

Gallery said he and Samson have traveled to Washington, D.C., Cumberland, Md., and points in between as part of their job.

The dog received his first test during President Obama's inauguration, when a suspicious package was found at a Washington hotel.

"We were at the Lincoln Memorial for a briefing when I got the call," he said. "It turned out to be nothing. But all the time you're thinking, 'something could happen here.'"

Since the two have become a team, Gallery said Samson has found several firearms and explosives, and also has cleared several packages and luggage suspected of containing dangerous material.

Gallery said he's not a brave person, but he also is not fearful. The Army veteran has gunshot wounds from serving in Vietnam to prove it. What he's most concerned about is safety, he said.

"You want to do your job. You want to do your best," he said. "But I always think of keeping Samson safe."

Public-relations pooch

Because Samson is an active member of the National Park Service, he wears a badge, Gallery said, and is prepared for everything from detecting bombs to visiting children in schools.

"He's good public relations," Gallery said.

Although he completed his training several years ago, Samson continues to learn, Gallery said.

"We're training every day," he said. "We leave our home in Shepherdstown, W.Va., get in the car and head to the National Conservation Training Center."

Inside the gym, the dog spends 30 minutes on a treadmill, then Gallery hides training aids in places such as lockers and the equipment room for Samson to find.

"He never gets tired of it. There's no end to what he can learn," Gallery said. "But just as a parent with a child, I hope I'm doing right by him."

Gallery said he provides housing for Samson, but the food is supplied by the government. The dog is transported in a K-9 vehicle with a cage and he has his own body armor.

When it comes time for Samson to retire, Gallery said, "the thinking is that a K-9 dog should go with their handler. I hope that's the case with Samson. He's become close to our family and loves to play with my wife's female chocolate Lab. She's the alpha, telling him what to do and when to do it."

Gallery said he wanted to be a park ranger from the time he was a little boy living in a fishing village in Massachusetts.

"One of my neighbors was a park ranger, and he would give all the kids a badge," he said. "I knew that's what I wanted to be when I grew up."

Gallery said he was drafted into the Army and "walked right into the Tet Offensive. I was wounded. But everyone was getting wounded."

After serving in the military, he said he went back to school and began his career with the National Park Service.

"Working with a K-9 unit is something I always dreamed of doing, and I'm fortunate to have this opportunity," he said. "Now, though, my career is coming to a close. I wish this would have happened years ago."

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