What It’s Like to Be a Homeland Security Dog

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Below is an excerpt from the book City of Dogs, a heartwarming, inspiring and sometimes funny collection of stories chronicling the unique relationships between dogs and their humans.

The Dogs of Homeland Security at John F. Kennedy International Airport

It’s all about the smells! Vacuum-packed chicken claw snacks. Beef-flavored candy. Mysterious mushrooms. A Maeve Binchy novel filled with brand-name marijuana. Freeze-dried sea horses. A spittle-based bird’s nest for making stew.

Behind the scenes at John F. Kennedy International Airport, there’s a whole team of dogs working to protect the security of passengers as well as the citizens and the environment. It may sound dramatic, but these dogs play it cool. Trained from a young age to signal in response to specific scents, the dogs fan out with their handlers through the airport, working eight-hour shifts before returning to their on-site kennels for a satisfying rest. Don’t feel sorry for these working dogs; for them, work is play and they love the game.

Related: Puppy Abandoned at Airport With Heartbreaking Note After Owner Leaves Abusive Relationship

In baggage claim, a beagle and his handler walk among the passengers who are eagerly waiting for their belongings to appear. As the suitcases and trunks are stacked onto a Smarte Carte, the dog takes a discreet sniff. In most cases, the interaction begins and ends there, but if the dog picks up on contra-band, he will gaze up at the passenger, and his human officer will politely request that they pop open their case. Most often, what they’ve discovered is agricultural and unintentional: a snack that poses some risk of contamination to the US agricultural system. The danger isn’t from the food or plant itself but from potential parasites it could be carrying. Sometimes the dog is triggered by smoked cheese, which isn’t banned but smells similar to forbidden meats.

Behind the scenes, a Malinois is walking the conveyor belt, checking on luggage that is being sorted for different flights. He paces efficiently around and over each piece as it passes, until something draws his attention and he sits until a handler pulls the bag. With each find, he gets a reward—a moment with his favorite toy—and then back to work. To keep things fun, and to make sure there are always successes in the long day, the team occasionally tosses an intentionally scented package into the mix. In the mail hangar, the dog correctly recognizes a cardboard box that smells like fentanyl. Then, toy! And back to work.

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Passengers are scent-screened as well, al-though it is done so discreetly they may not even realize it is happening. An officer walks his dog past passengers lined up to board along a narrow passageway, until the dog abruptly sits in front of a middle-aged man. He turns out to be a plant: a journalist intentionally dressed with a vest emitting a crack cocaine scent. All the dogs care about is get-ting the right answer.

Having a canine partner is an honor here. Being the human half of the team requires as much focus and training as it does to be the dog. It’s like ballroom dancing: you get used to the nuance of your partner, so it’s no wonder the dogs, when they retire, almost always go home with their handler or another member of the human team. When they are on duty, these dogs are the city’s gatekeepers, keeping track of arrivals and departures and making sure everyone gets safely home.

Related: A Dog Rejected by the Police Finds Her Calling Helping Drug Rehab Patients Stay Clean

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