Wonders of a Wet Nose: Bomb Sniffing Dogs

Labrador Retriever sniffs for bombs in airport luggage.

Did you know that a dog’s wet nose could save your life? Bomb sniffing dogs are working day and night all over the world to protect innocent lives from danger. This amazing feat is only possible thanks to these dogs’ wet noses!

Talented Noses Keep Airports Secure

In March of 1972, bomb detecting dogs received some of their earliest national recognition when a German Shepherd named Brandy prevented a major incident on an American jetliner. After receiving numerous bomb threats, officials at John F. Kennedy airport in New York grounded all planes to track down the potential danger. TWA Flight 7 had just begun a direct flight all the way to California with over fifty people on board but was ordered to return to JFK for an emergency landing.

German Shepherd bomb sniffing dog inspecting airport luggage carousel.

The bomb sniffing dogs patrolling airports today can thank Brandy for their very important jobs!

At this time, the science behind training dogs to detect explosives, drugs, and other dangers was still being tested and researched in the United States. By pure coincidence, two of these new, specially trained explosive detection canines were at JFK for a scheduled demonstration of their abilities by the Federal Aviation Administration. They had just begun the exercise, using their keen sense of smell to track down drugs hidden in planted luggage, when airport officials rushed them to Flight 7. An unusual black case had been discovered in the cockpit of the plane, so Brandy and her partner sprung into action.

Using over 300 million olfactory receptors in her nose, Brandy quickly sniffed out the explosive device. As she had been trained, she sat definitively in front of the live bomb to indicate what she had found to her handler. Bomb squad detectives then worked quickly to remove the case containing 5 pounds of C-4 explosive—more than enough to destroy the plane and all lives on board—and deactivated the bomb with only 5 minutes to spare. This incident validated the use of canines for bomb detection on planes and in airports, leading to the official use of canine detection agents by the FAA.

The Science Behind a Wet Nose

The super sniffing abilities of explosive detection dogs like Brandy are enhanced by their cold, wet noses. A dog’s nose is wet due to a thin layer of mucus secreted by their delicate nasal tissue, as well as frequent nose-licking. This moist surface collects scent particles from the surrounding environment much better than a drier nose, allowing the dog’s complex olfactory system to detect even more odors. A dog’s sense of smell is so powerful that they can detect the tiniest particles even when inundated with other scents—dogs can easily detect a literal needle in a haystack!

Can my dog detect bombs?

Technically, yes, almost any dog of any breed could detect the explosive materials that make up a bomb, but they wouldn’t be inclined to alert you to these scents without rigorous training. Explosive Detection Canines, or EDCs, are prestigious working dogs who have completed months of training and conditioning to hone their skills for the job.

How are bomb sniffing dogs trained to detect explosives?

Most bomb sniffing dogs are trained using operant conditioning training protocols, which boil down to, “do something good, get a reward.” This positive reinforcement encourages them to be successful, keeps morale up, and gets them excited about going to work every day. Before they even begin their job-specific training, EDCs are highly socialized as puppies and evaluated for temperament and stability—not all dogs have what it takes to remain calm and focused in a loud, bustling airport!

German Shepherd bomb sniffing dog checking luggage for explosives at an airport.

Explosives Detection Canines are trained to sniff around zippers and other areas where smells would escape luggage.

Early in their olfactory training, EDCs are exposed to the specific materials found in various types of bombs and improvised explosive devices. The distinct scents of these materials are “imprinted” on them by combining the smells with a food or toy reward, so they know that when they find those odors, it’s a big deal. The burgeoning bomb dogs are then trained to sit calmly near the imprinted scent, indicating its presence to their human handler and allowing the item to be carefully removed or evaluated.

Once the dogs have learned which smells to seek, EDCs learn where and how to investigate the items they will commonly be searching, like luggage, parcels, even people walking past. Most dogs are trained for a single, specific environment including airports, train stations, stadiums, city streets, even war zones.

Each EDC is paired with a single handler early on in their training program, and they will work and live with their handler every day for the rest of their lives. Their structured sniffing skills will be tested and proofed regularly throughout their careers, which usually last 8-9 years. Virtually all EDCs retire into a pampered home life with their handler.

German Shepherd bomb sniffing dogs working airport security with their handlers.

German Shepherds are often used for explosives detection due to their drive and intelligence.

Which breeds make the best bomb dogs?

While all dogs possess the sniffing power to detect explosives, some breeds are better suited to the job. The most important canine soft skills for explosive detection dogs are intelligence, drive to work, and stability under pressure. Labrador Retrievers are most common as airport EDCs because of their non-threatening appearance and willingness to work for a simple food reward—labs love to eat! German Shepherds are also commonly trained as EDCs, but they often prefer a play-based reward, so their handlers stay stocked up on tennis balls! Other breeds such as Beagles, spaniels, Belgian Malinoises, and more may also be used for this work depending on their individual temperament.

Keep those Noses in Tip-Top Shape!

Wet noses are important for all dogs, from the working dogs patrolling airport security to the house-pet lounging on your couch. Just as explosive detection canines need healthy noses to do their best work, your dog needs a moist nose to live their best life. If your dog has a dry, cracked, or crusty nose, our award-winning dog nose balm is the remedy! Snout Soother® is a synergistic blend of organic, plant-based ingredients working together to treat, heal, and moisturize your pup’s sniffer. With hundreds of real reviews, the results speak for themselves!

German shepherd dry, flaking dog nose

 Jordan’s snout was so dry to the point it was cracked, flaking, and bleeding. The after photo was taken just 8 days from starting to use the Snout Soother. Her dry dog nose looks and feels so much healthier. — Lauren; Lake in the Hills, Illinois