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April 1st Detector Dog Program was No Joke

Release Date: 
April 1, 2010

On April 1, 1970, the April Fools joke was on any drug smugglers trying to transport their goods into the United States illicitly. Forty years ago, the U.S. Customs Service announced its new detector dog program at ports of entry. Canines had been used by the military as sentry dogs and also on the battlefield for a variety of uses, but they had never been used to sniff out drugs.

Three of the pioneers of the narcotic detection program: Charles Caldwell, Chief Course Developer, Gene McEatheron, Director Customs Service Canine Program, Thomas Chowning Chief Course Developer (Special Courses)

Three of the pioneers of the narcotic detection program: Charles Caldwell, Chief Course Developer, Gene McEatheron, Director Customs Service Canine Program, Thomas Chowning Chief Course Developer (Special Courses)

Photo Credit:James Tourtellotte

In response to the rampant use of recreational drugs by the 60s counterculture, our government launched the first "drug war," passing new laws and establishing new agencies and programs. As demand for narcotics, especially marijuana, hashish amphetamines and psychedelic drugs ratcheted up, drug smuggling efforts increased and became more sophisticated.

Dave Ellis, an innovative U.S. Customs Service Assistant Commissioner, thought that canines could be used to intercept the flow of illicit drugs coming across our borders. After visiting dog trainers all across the country, researching training capabilities, the last stop was the Air Force Canine Training Program at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

Canines are trained in environments that simulate where they will work. Here a handler trains a canine on a baggage belt.

Canines are trained in environments that simulate where they will work. Here a handler trains a canine on a baggage belt.

Photo Credit:James Tourtellotte

MSgt Gene McEathron was in the Air Force working with the canine program and was recognized for his expertise. He was detailed to the Customs Service to develop a pilot program to see if and how canines could be used. Starting with excess sentry dogs and four former military dog handlers, and with McEathron and Jim Cheatwood as instructors, the program was born.

Based on experience, observation and knowledge of canine behavior, McEathron determined that the most important instinct for a detector dog was, not his nose, but the retrieval drive. The training was based on a 'game" of hunting for a "toy," in this case, a rolled up towel, scented with a narcotic odor. The process was deceptively simple- the toy was hidden and when the dog found it, the handler rewarded the dog with lots of praise and a game of tug-of-war. The first canines were trained to detect and respond to marijuana and hashish, but by the end of September, the trainers determined that the same dogs could be trained to detect the additional odors of heroin and cocaine.

Canine trains in a mail facility environment sniffing packages for narcotics.

Canine trains in a mail facility environment sniffing packages for narcotics.

Photo Credit:James Tourtellotte

The first detector dog operation was on the Southwest border at the Laredo, Roma, and Falcon Dam ports of entry. On his first assignment, Gene McEathron and his canine Albert, a German Shepherd, made the first canine seizure during their inspections in the secondary lot. Though the Customs officers had not found any evidence of tampering, Albert alerted at the door panel of a car being searched. When the door panel was removed five pounds of marijuana were found.

In July 1974 the detector dog training program was moved to its current location on 300 acres of property in Front Royal, Va. The historic locale had been used as a beef cattle research facility that dated back to the 1890s when it was the U.S. Cavalry Remount Station of the Quartermaster General.

From these humble beginnings in 1970, the detector canine program has evolved into a robust and integral part of CBP's border security efforts at our ports of entry. Last year the Front Royal Center trained 128 canines to detect and interdict narcotics, concealed humans, currency, and firearms, and canine teams operated in 20 field offices and in more than 75 ports of entry including two teams that are located at Pre-Clearance stations in Shannon, Ireland and Aruba.

Originally canines were trained using a rolled up towel as the

Originally canines were trained using a rolled up towel as the "toy" reward for finding narcotics. Today there is a range of materials used as the reward.

Photo Credit:James Tourtellotte

That first seizure of five pounds of marijuana stands in sharp contrast to the 673,292 pounds of marijuana seized in FY 2009 by the Office of Field Operations canine enforcement teams. But in addition, the teams seized more than 26,000 pounds of cocaine, 1,087 pounds of heroin, 2.7 million pills, and $34 million in undeclared currency. More than 5,600 violators were arrested due to canine detections at our ports of entry.

Today, Customs and Border Protection has the largest and most diverse canine program in the country. CBP's canine program supports two training centers, the Canine Center Front Royal, which continues to supply canine teams in support of operations at the ports of entry and the Canine Center El Paso. This Center trains canines principally to support Border Patrol operations between the ports of entry and so includes specialty training such as search and rescue operations, tracking and trailing. CBP also maintains agriculture detector dogs to detect prohibited agricultural products and meats that may be injurious to our agricultural resources.

Regardless of what they are detecting or the environment in which they are working, CBP canine teams are at the forefront of canine detector dog programs. CBP salutes the innovative thinking and diligent efforts of the program managers, handlers and trainers who pioneered the program and those who continue to advance the mission.

Last modified: 
February 8, 2017