Heel, Drop, Roll and Sniff Out IEDs, Good Boy!

Contributor:  IDGA Staff
Posted:  12/20/2012  12:00:00 AM EST
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It takes a lot of time and money developing technologies that adequately locate and diffuse the IED threat. According to Lisa Albuquerque, Program Manager of the Naval Expeditionary Dog Program, Dog’s may be our greatest asset!The following interview examines the science of training dogs as master detectives of IEDs, and the various research initiatives being undertaken currently to develop canine warriors! Read on…

Tell us a little bit about the aims of the Naval Expeditionary Dog Program [NEDP] by highlighting the various short and long-term goals

One of the important things to understand is that the Office of Naval Research (ONI) does just exactly that, research. So we look at challenges the warfighter faces from a little bit of a different viewpoint. We’re not focused on operations or doctrine.  What we’re focusing on is if we are we providing the warfighter with the absolute best whatever it is - whether it’s a ship, an airplane or a dog-that we possibly can.

While many folks think that dogs are the low-tech approach, which they certainly are, there’s also a lot of sophistication and a lot of science and technology that can be applied to that dog. I think sometimes it confuses people because they assume there is only one way to work with dogs.  Actually, there are many ways and many areas that we can focus on to try to improve what is really the world’s most sophisticated sensor attached to a completely autonomous sensor platform. So that changes the approach a little bit and opens up the opportunity to look at the sensor in terms of how sensitive it is, how good it is in terms of discrimination, how reliable it is, can it be made more reliable, how can it be made more able to generalize?
 
There are a lot of different opportunities with every single aspect of that nose that’s on that dog’s face. In addition to the nose you’ve got the rest of the body. A tired dog may not cognitively process the information from the sensor as well as he could, so we’re very interested in looking at things like how well is the dog physically conditioned, how healthy is he, how good does he feel about going out and doing his job on a daily basis, because all of those factors may sound like you’re just being nice, but they’re actually designed to make sure that sensor on that autonomous platform is ready and able at the moment the warfighter needs it to perform. So we look at everything from the close in questions regarding how we’re employing dogs today - what are the current threats, missions, and environments in which we’re using dogs, and we also look at the long term possibilities of what could we do if we really understood better how the dog is cognitively processing the odor molecules that are hitting his sensory organs. We look at a range of factors—dogs are sometimes thought of as not being as smart as humans—I would suggest they are a lot smarter but in a different way. We’ve all adapted through evolution to be smart at what we need to be smart at, and dogs are incredibly smart at the things that they need to do. So we have to, as humans, be better able to understand and leverage that if we want to use these incredibly valuable living resources.
 
You mentioned that ONI focuses primarily on science and technology. Talk to us about the ways in which the research into this is really making a difference on the battlefield.
 
We have recently done some very good work. Oklahoma State University is one of our prime performers through Dr. Mike Davis. He comes to us from having done over ten years of work on the Iditarod Sled Dog medical side. We wanted to look at solutions to the challenge of stamina by looking towards those who have dogs that need to be able to perform for a sustained period at a high intensity. We don’t ever want the dog to be the failure point for the warfighter when they’re out doing their dismounted patrol. We look at things like how we can condition dogs so that they are less fatigued and have less post exercise muscle damage than dogs who have not been conditioned in that same way.  We look at how quick physical conditioning degrades (or doesn’t), and how quickly we can recover condition. We’ve learned that we can restore full capacity and resilience in a dog that has a break from his physical conditioning of a few weeks, such as would be encountered during the deployment process, in a matter of 2-3 weeks if we go into this with a dog that is in peak physical condition.
 
So the whole issue of taking that highly conditioned K-9 athlete, because in this case that’s what they are, forward and figuring out how you “build” the dog for the mission that it will be doing in the environment in which he will be doing it - one of the things that we’ve learned is that a dog that is being used the way we’re currently using dogs in some of our overseas theatres, the dog is actually covering 20 miles or more in any given day—day after day after day. Your average dog cannot do that, nor can your average human.  There are clearly parallels between human and dog performance and we share information between the human and dog performance programs in ONR Code 30.  
 
Developing the processes needed to prepare these dogs for that kind of work level performance in high heat environments provides a lot of opportunity to look at how we can moderate the effect of heat on dogs, how we can help dogs to better (more quickly) acclimate, how we can better address water management and hydration, how we can make sure that the food that they’re being fed is consistent with the nutritional requirements of that kind of performance. If we can condition dogs that are capable of running for a sustained period in a heat environment without having heat dispersion problems then we’ve gotten closer to having a dog who can perform for sustained periods at the energy level we need from him high heat, high stimulus environment.
We also look, and Dr. Barbara Sherman is our lead from North Carolina State University for this, at how we can ensure that the dog that we’re selecting is the dog that’s actually going to enjoy the work that it’s doing. How do we identify those dogs that have the emotional resilience, the drive to hunt, and the tractability - which is their willingness to work with people- to support the kind of work that we need these dogs to do? So we are building on some very good work that’s been done by the service assistance dog community, because you don’t spend months training very high performing service assistance dogs only to find out at the end of training that a high stimulus environment causes the dog not to work. So we try to leverage everything we can from all the different dog disciplines and evaluate it in a scientific way.
 
One of the things that North Carolina State University did was use cheek swab cortisol levels to validate that the testing that we were doing, the screening tests we use to select the dogs is effective and actually does predict what we need it to.   In the course of the research we found out that, interestingly enough, emotional reactivity/fearfulness doesn’t change over time. So if you have a dog that is fearful in a given environment, even if you habituate the dog to become comfortable in that environment it really doesn’t answer the mail. You have to recognize that the dog is what the dog is and fundamental dog personality traits such as fearfulness don’t change.
 
Duke University Canine Cognition Center’s Dr. Evan MacLean and Dr. Brian Hare are looking at how a category of military working dogs used for counter-IED efforts performs on a wide range of personality tests, all from peer reviewed studies, that look at things like perseverance, independence and spatial awareness in order to look at how we might identify the constellation of cognitive traits that are common to those dogs that are high performers. So those are just some of the exciting things that we’re doing.
 
I’ve mentioned that we’ve worked with a lot of different partners; one of the tremendous opportunities that the Office of Naval Research gives me is the opportunity to reach out to the whole academic community, from toxicologists to evolutionary anthropologists, and some commercial and not for profit entities to get the best, strongest cross section of smart people to work on the very challenging problems. 
 
Again, this may sound low tech to some people, but there are a lot of smart people in universities and business that do nothing but spend their whole life thinking about things like, well what makes dogs anxious? And how do we keep them from feeling that way? It is very important to have that kind of outreach and whole of government approach if we are to make the best use of the taxpayer’s money.
 
How specifically do you train a canine to detect, and to be a good soldier?
 
We don’t train dogs to detect, dogs are detecting all of the time. Your dog that you own at home knows literally thousands of different odors, recognizes the value of those odors, and knows what he plans on doing when encounters them. As anyone who has ever walked a dog knows, they stop quite frequently to investigate things. The issue is really how we might shape the way the communications go between dogs and humans to allow us to understand better what the dog is already detecting.
 
Our emphasis is as much on understanding the cognitive processing the dogs go through and helping the humans  to better understand what they’re seeing when they’re seeing it in the dog. We also try to better understand air currents, odor plumes and how the physics of those work, and in that aspect we’re teaming with the Naval Research Laboratory on odor plume dynamics. It’s not a matter of whether or not the dog is smart—it’s not a matter of teaching him to detect- but teaching us how to communicate better with the dog about what we want him to detect and to recognize when he’s making those detections.
 
How do you measure success for the programs?
 
We measure success by the state side proof of concepts that we do where we empirically evaluate the application of our research to make sure that what we think we just learned is actually what we needed to learn. In other words, if we say that we’re going to make a dog that can do certain things, then we objectively, with outside expertise,  evaluate the dog here state side. However, when it really comes down to it my personal measure of success is the feedback we get from the warfighter. Because if we gave them a product that works and they used it we did a good job. If we don’t or it doesn’t then we failed.
 
You’ll be presenting at the 8th Counter IED Training Summit. What do you anticipate you’ll be talking to our audience about and what value do you want to instill on them?
 
I would like people to think about the whole counter IED mission as being one that is multi-layered and requires the consistent focus of the human on a wide variety of sensors. Dogs are not a silver bullet, dogs are not the only answer, however they are one of the most robust, remote standoff detection devices that exist. So I would ask people to look at the mission, threat, and environment and determine whether or not they have optimized the dogs that they are using for that specific mission, threat, and environment. I would also want people to understand that dogs are not one size fits all.
 
The dog that is the right dog for a specific mission, threat, and environment may very well not be the right dog for the next mission, threat and environment. I think that’s one of the roles of science and technology - to look ahead to where are we going next, what will we be challenged with next, and figure out what we need to know in the science realm before we get there.
IDGA Staff Contributor:   IDGA Staff


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