Every month as many as 10 to 20 dogs and their handlers from federal agencies as well as from local county and municipal police departments visit the training facility that NIST uses to test and evaluate urban search and rescue and explosive ordnance disposal robots.
The training facility represents a building in various stages of collapse and provides a robot testing site for both pre- and post-disaster scenarios. The jumble of concrete, collapsed walls and fallen debris also offers just the right challenge to sharpen the skills of the dogs who hunt for hidden drugs or patrol for potential terrorist targets.
Small samples of explosive materials or narcotics are first hidden amid the rubble. Then individual dogs, under the watchful eyes of their handlers who are, in a sense, in training as well, seek out firearms, ammunition, explosives and chemical compounds used to build explosives, or drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Once the dog finds the "hide," he or she sits silently, at attention, in front of the cache.
The individual dogs are trained in locating drugs or explosives, not both. Handlers must know why a dog is sitting, and in a real situation, whether the find is safe to pick up. Success brings a shout of "That's my Boy," a pat on the head, a brief pulling match over a toy with the handler, and then the hunt goes on until all the hidden explosives or drugs are found.
"A dog just wants to play," said Sergeant Rick Hawkins of the NIH Police Department who coordinates the multi-agency K-9 visits to NIST. "When we go home, we look at our paycheck. A dog has his toy and that's what he works for." Hawkins' 6-year-old black Labrador, Flyer, is trained to find narcotics.
The police trainers appreciate having a unique indoor facility that challenges the dogs' skills and that is available on a regular basis. At the same time, the NIST robotics experts benefit from observing police techniques for systematically searching for explosives.
In April, NIST experts helped with the 2005 RoboCup German Open international competition in Paderborn, Germany, that used a newly constructed version of the NIST arenas to test the performance of the latest rescue robots.