If you watched the 91st Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, there’s a good chance you didn’t notice one of the parade’s most interesting features, since it wasn’t as conspicuous as the six-story Snoopy lumbering through the air.
On the ground, the New York Police Department (NYPD) deployed a team of 14 Labrador retrievers trained to detect explosives worn on the bodies of people in the crowd. This team of powerful pups added an extra layer of security to the event, which attracts more than 3.5 million spectators every year. Such a throng raises many crowd-control and terrorism concerns for its host. The dogs were not the only vigilant protectors—officers with assault weapons and portable radiation detectors walked among the crowd, and sharpshooters on rooftops scanned building windows and balconies for anything unusual.
As if keeping the streets of New York City safe on a regular day isn’t hard enough, shutting down the 2.5-mile route – from 77th Street down Central Park West to Columbus Circle, then along Central Park South to 6th Avenue, down 6th Avenue to 34th Street, then finally along 34th Street to Macy’s Herald Square – is a logistical nightmare for the NYPD and creates a multitude of security vulnerabilities. Recent terror attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the suicide bomber explosion that killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande show in May at Manchester Arena in England, and several other high-profile attacks have highlighted the issues associated with screening large crowds for concealed explosives and firearms. Confronted with the need to search thousands of people effectively and efficiently, event planners have turned to “Vapor Wake” dogs. These super sniffers are trained using the patented “Vapor Wake” method, which enables dogs to smell body-worn bombs and other illicit substances in large crowds from as far away as the length of a football field.
In September 2009, Auburn University in Alabama filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to register a patent for a “dynamic canine tracking method for hazardous and illicit substances.” The application sought patent protection for a method of “vapor wake detection” that involved devices being strategically located to manipulate the air and specially trained and positioned dogs continuously sampling air currents by sniffing to identify explosives or other illicit substances in real time (figure 1-2). In layman’s terms, it is technology designed to detect explosives worn on the body of a person who is moving.
Vapor Wake patented training is the culmination of years of research by doctors and scientists at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, including John Pearce (Jacksonville, Alabama), L. Paul Waggoner (Jacksonville, Alabama), Jeanne S. Brock (Ft. McClellan, Alabama), Timothy Baird (Jacksonville, Alabama), David A. Baffa (Towaco, New Jersey), Daniel McAfee (Piedmont, Alabama), and Robert E. Leonard, Jr. (Weaver, Alabama). It applies Gary Settle’s research on human thermal plumes—heat naturally produced by and emanating from every human body. A thermal plume moves upward when a person is standing still, but as he or she begins to move forward, the plume extends backward, much like the wake of a moving boat. Security professionals are interested in thermal plumes, which are significantly denser and more dynamic than scientists initially suspected, because particles of a body-worn explosive or illicit substance mix with the carrier’s plume. As the carrier moves forward, these particles flow off the body with the thermal plume. The scientific community refers to this particle transportation system as velocity heat transfer. The Vapor Wake method takes advantage of the fact that a Labrador retriever has over 220-300 million sensors in its nose (a human has only 5-6 million). The dogs’ superior sense of smell allows them to detect even the faintest odors, which to them are as clear and tangible as brightly colored ribbon, up to 10 minutes after the carrier has left the area.
In the original patent application, Auburn sought 19 claims, including a method of training Vapor Wake detection dogs and properly using them. This method included documenting a dog’s sniffing capabilities and overall sociability, implementing Vapor Wake detection by placing the dog in a particular way and recognizing the dog’s signal when it detects an odor, and choosing the particular placement of the dog (figure 1-2). The figures filed with the application included a flowchart of steps in the process and drawings representing the air currents wafting to the dog, with its nose prominently arched upward for maximum detection (figure 3-4).
That application was superseded by a second application filed on August 27, 2010, which revised the claims to focus more on the manipulation of the air currents than on the method of choosing the vapor-detecting dogs. This application matured into a registration in 2015. Additional divisions of the application were subsequently filed, the most recent in 2016, and one additional patent was issued in 2015. Despite the subsequent applications, however, the main purpose of the patent has remained the same. The applications have always related to the field of substance, object, and material detection, specifically the identification of substances, materials, and objects that are hazardous or illicit, and employing a dog to sniff them out.
Vapor Wake dogs differ from other explosive detection dogs (EDDS) primarily in the way the dog and its handler interact. With traditional bomb-, drug-, or contraband-sniffing dogs, the handler will lead the dog to the area to be inspected. For Vapor Wake detection, the dogs are strategically placed to get the maximum amount of air flow to analyze or are stationed at choke points or entry points where people are funneled through, and the air currents in the vicinity of the dog are manipulated to waft any relevant scents to it for detection (figure 4). The dog is trained to recognize the scents of numerous illicit substances, firearms, and explosives, whereas traditional sniffing dogs may be limited to detecting drugs or explosives.
Then the dog, not the handler, takes the lead in identifying the source of the illicit substance or other material by using its nose to filter through all of the scents that are constantly being pushed toward it. The advantage of vapor detection dogs over traditional bomb-sniffing dogs is that vapor detection dogs can “inspect” hundreds of people at one time rather than having to approach each person individually with a handler. The manipulation of air currents to maximize the chance of odors being sent in the direction of the dog enables the dog to essentially sniff many people at once.
The handler is trained to watch the dog for signs of behavioral change that signal detection of an illicit substance. Upon such a change in behavior, the handler and dog then identify the carrier and security personnel are notified. One example of a notable behavioral change is the dog following the carrier of the detected substance or material at a distance determined by the handler, which aids in identification of the particular carrier. Because vapor wake dogs are obedient to odors and not people, they are always on alert and focused on detecting the scents they are trained to identify.
Vapor Wake dogs provide a number of advantages over traditional EDDs that are particularly useful in crowd control and combating the security threats that body-worn explosives pose in this new era of terrorism. Before 9/11, traditional bomb-detection canines were rare even at high-profile events, and when they were present their ability to provide the level of scrutiny a large crowd requires was limited. Traditional bomb dogs are trained to search a static object, which requires a security professional to either perform the cumbersome task of conducting random screenings or identify suspicious individuals in a crowd. Because of the stationary limitation of EDDs’ bomb-detection technique, individuals are often subjected to invasive searches that slow the movement of people and result in a smaller percentage of people being screened. With Vapor Wake dogs, large swaths of people can be screened as they pass through checkpoints. Moreover, Vapor Wake dogs can walk among large crowds, searching the crowd as they trot in and out of the footpaths of people, and are capable of fulfilling the traditional role of EDDs if needed, too.
Auburn University began a breeding program in the early 2000s in response to the American Airlines shoe bomber attack that was ultimately foiled. Auburn University conducted a global search among working dog breeds for possible Vapor Wake candidates that could provide better detection of explosives, and ultimately settled on Labrador retrievers that came from the Australian Customs Service. Labrador retrievers were the dogs of choice because they are vigorous and hard workers that can sustain a high level of focus for a prolonged period of time. Retrievers also provide the strategic advantage of having a friendly demeanor, which allows the dogs to work in a crowd without intimidating people or putting anyone on alert. Vapor Wake K9 detection teams integrate directly into established security programs and work seamlessly with existing explosive detection units.
Auburn also registered the service mark “Vapor Wake” in Class 45 for providing dog detection services and licensed this as well to VWK9. As of 2017, VWK9 is now the sole owner of the Vapor Wake detection technology embodied in the patent. VWK9 trains and sells working detection dogs for the military, state and local entities, and private businesses. Each dog goes through a minimum of 15 months of training and costs roughly $25,000 to $50,000. These dogs can be bought with bulk discounts or leased for events. Vapor Wake technology has been tested through the National Center for Spectator Sport Safety and Security, which resulted in the technology securing NCS4 certification.
Because of how specialized the sniffing technique is for Vapor Wake dogs, these paw patrols are retrained and recertified every year regardless of whether they are owned by another institution or are being leased. This rigorous training program ensures that these dogs’ sense of smell remains refined, vigilant, and capable of performing at peak levels. Training occurs at a 320-acre state-of-the-art academy in Anniston, Alabama, only 95 miles from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The facility is staffed with more than 35 knowledgeable instructors, trainers, and support personnel who assist in the handlers’ course and maintain the workforce of 150+ dogs in various stages of training at any given moment in time. Concern for the dogs’ welfare does not end with their working career. VWK9 Academy strives to ensure the richest quality of life for its veterans by enrolling each retired canine into an adoption program, through which each dog is individually screened and suitable homes and families are carefully selected.
With success at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the NYPD elected to also use the dogs to ring in 2018 at the annual Times Square celebration on New Year’s Eve. The New York City subway pipe-bomb attack in December and the Las Vegas shooting in October illustrate the omnipresent security threat body-worn explosives and terrorism pose in this modern era. Vapor Wake dogs, with their fluffy ears, glossy coats, and powerful noses, serve as a silver lining in the war against terrorism. These pups might not have the same intimidation factor as a fully armored SWAT team, but their calm demeanor and finely tuned noses truly make them man’s best friend in this ongoing fight.