Follow Your Nose

Story and photos by Petty Officer 3rd Class Tara Molle

On a drizzly, overcast Monday morning, a long line of cars sit bumper to bumper at Coleman Dock in Seattle waiting to board a Washington State Ferry (WSF). A pair of shiny black boots and four furry paws move across wet asphalt in rapid fashion. With their heads low and eyes quickly scanning for anything out of the ordinary they weave in and out between several rows of vehicles.

“Here!” commands a friendly voice with a hand pointing near the tires.

A small wet nose sniffs tire after tire as her body skims against cars. Concentrating on her movement then she quickly snaps her head back on a scent she has picked up. Her little marbled black body can barely sit down because she is shaking so hard from excitement. Ears straight up and keen eyes focused on her master’s pocket. If she is right with this possible hit, she will be rewarded with a treat.

“Good girl,” says the voice, not reaching for his pocket just yet.

The man approaches the vehicle politely motioning for them to roll down their window. Although he is dressed head to toe in a crisp military uniform, body armor and equipped with every police accessory imaginable including a pistol, his voice and demeanor is calm and welcoming.

“Good morning,” he says. “I was just curious to know if you happened to have any firearms or ammunition on board.”

A family of three in a small blue sedan smile at the man. The father responds that they are heading to the trap and skeet range in Bremerton, Wash., to shoot clay pigeons. He motions to the back of the vehicle where there are a few boxes of shotgun shells. The scent that was picked up was gunpowder.

Nevertheless, it was a positive hit and still waiting patiently is the small, marbled black body of fur now barely containing herself.

“You did good girl!” said the man.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a knotted rope, which he tosses up in the air. A split second later it is caught by sharp precise little teeth.

A happy dog curls up on the floor satisfied with her prize as the proud Coast Guard petty officer kneels patting her head in recognition.

Many people might see this as tedious work but for the Coast Guard K-9 unit at Marine Safety and Security Team (MSST) 91101 in Seattle, this is just another day to ‘play.’

SEATTLE - Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Hartman and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Cross pose with their dogs Evy and Tomas at Kerry Park, Wash. Hartman, Cross and their dogs are members of the K9 department attached to Marine Safety and Security Team Seattle.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Hartman and Petty Officer 2ndClass Ryan Cross, get to ‘play’ almost every single day with their trusty, furry 3-year old friends Tomas, a German Sheperd (Cross’s dog) and Evy, a Belgian Malinois/Sheperd mix (Hartman’s dog); two hyper but loving dogs.

However, these dogs aren’t your normal domestic pets. They are certified bomb-sniffing dogs and their job is to do just what their title says, search for explosive materials on or near waterfront property, which is often a multi-agency jurisdictional area the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction. For Washington residents, a lot of that overlap of jurisdiction revolves in and around the WSF.

“The Washington State Ferry system is one of the largest ferry systems in the country shuttling hundreds of thousands of people,” said Hartman.

Serving the Puget Sound, Wash., and the San Juan Islands, the Washington State Ferry System shuttles millions of people each year across the vast open waters of the Salesh Sea. It is the largest fleet of passenger and automobile ferries in the United States and the third largest in the world.

The Coast Guard K-9 handlers sweep these terminals in conjunction with their partners and peers of the Washington State Patrol.

“Our job is to be down at the dock (Coleman Dock, Seattle) screening cars prior to them boarding the ferries,” said Cross. “That’s where most of our time is spent when we are not training.”

“We have conducted sweeps of the King County Federal Courthouse for bomb threats, presidential sweeps, sweeps for the University of Washington and sweeps for VIP’s like the Secretary General of the United Nations, Governor of Washington and foreign dignitaries,” said Hartman proudly.

The K-9 unit is attached to MSST Seattle, which is attached to the Deployable Operations Group based at Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The K-9 unit maintains small quarters in one of the large warehouses on Pier 36 here. Tucked neatly behind the MSST gym are two large kennels alongside two cubicles where two men and their ‘best friends’ reside during their downtime.

Even though the area is cold and dark, they do their best to make it seem like a piece of home. Frames and plaques hang on the wall with photos of past dogs and their trainers. A large cork board houses multiple colored patches given from other K-9 units. Thomas and Evy lay quiet but remain alert in their kennels.

“We got all of our dogs from U.S. Customs,” said Hartman. “We don’t get to pick or touch the dogs. Customs will pair the dog to the handler. There are typically three different kinds of dogs used for this kind of work and that is primarily German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, and Malinois (Belgian Shepherd).”

Hartman explained that it takes approximately 15 weeks for the dogs to get their certification at a training facility in Front Royal, Va. They are initially certified to search aircraft, luggage, freight, vehicle, vessels and passengers.

“We go through the training together,” said Cross. “We are both starting out green and then if we pass and everything is alright we get sent back to our unit fully certified.”

Back at home is where the real training begins. Like military personnel, most of the work and things the dogs will learn will be on-the-job. Even at home the dogs are being ‘trained.’

“Customs don’t take their dogs home after work,” said Cross. “We get to take ours home, which is nice.”

“Even though they are home with us, there is still a difference between a normal house dog and ours,” said Hartman. “We don’t give them toys because it’s a reward for them for doing a good job at work. We want the work to be fun for them.”

“They really do love their work,” said Cross. “They get so excited when they get a positive hit because they know they get a treat and get to play.”

“Don’t worry though, we don’t ignore them at home,” said Hartman grinning. “We just play more at work.”

For the K-9 unit, there are plenty of moments to ‘play’ but for the most part everything is strictly business, especially when it comes time to train.

“We have to set aside a minimum of four hours a week of training for the dogs,” said Cross.

Training sessions vary from week to week. Hartman and Cross set up ‘scent demos’ in the warehouse. This entails them placing materials laden with explosive scent in old luggage, boxes and in hard to reach places where the dogs will literally have to sniff out where the scent is coming from.

“There are many more different scents for explosive materials than narcotics,” said Hartman. “The dogs have approximately 25 different explosive materials they can seek out.”

“Also, we have to run all 25 odors at least once throughout the month,” said Cross.

Cross explained that although dogs have an extremely phenomenal sense of smell. There are approximately 225 million scent receptors in a German Shepherd’s nose and it has been estimated that dogs can identify smells somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than humans. While the dogs can smell a lot more than explosive material, such as narcotics, they are only utilized to detect bombs.

“Bomb dogs are strictly bomb dogs,” said Cross.

Although the K-9 unit only utilizes bomb dogs, they often train with other agencies that use both bomb and narcotics detecting dogs. Both Cross and Hartman explained in great detail that they have great working relationships with their local, state and federal partners.

“We have some of the best relations in the country,” said Hartman. “We work more with other agencies than our own unit. That doesn’t mean we don’t work with our own members (Coast Guard). It’s just that most of the time they are out on the water and we are on the shore searching the pier and such.”

Some of the agencies Hartman and Cross have worked with are the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff’s office, Washington State Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, Federal Air Marshals, ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Bellingham Police Department among many others.

“One of the problems we are having right now is when we are needed or requested for an agency assist because if it doesn’t have a maritime nexus, it’s difficult to justify if we can help,” said Cross. “Many agencies don’t know or understand our jurisdiction and authority limitations but when they call, they aren’t asking where our jurisdiction is, they are just in need of a bomb dog to find bombs.”

“It’s just on a case by case basis on how we are able to respond,” said Hartman. “If our role is clearly defined as assisting and another agency is on scene with authority and jurisdiction it’s usually not a problem.”

One of the largest cases the team assisted with was helping local law enforcement find a gun that was used in the Lakewood Police Department shooting Nov. 2009.

“We were contacted by Pierce County Sheriff’s Department,” said Cross. “Every agency was there. This is one of those cases where even though there isn’t a maritime nexus, we can still assist because on scene jurisdiction and authority were clearly defined and we were just assisting the responsible agency it’s an incident that is going on now and they need all the help they can get.”

Cross and Hartman discussed some of their more exciting searches like Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners and Quest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks.

“The proximity of the stadiums to the water is very close,” said Hartman. “This is one of those cases where you have thousands of people attending a game in a highly visible area so the possibility of a threat is very real.”

When the team isn’t conducting searches or training they use their downtime to catch up on administration work and community relations events.

“We have been able to set up several tours for elementary school kids, Cub Scouts and we have also worked with the Partnership In Education (PIE) program,” said Hartman.

The PIE program was created to enhance educational opportunities and career awareness for the nation’s youth through direct Coast Guard participation in education related programs.

“We will set up demos for the kids,” said Cross. “They absolutely love it and of course the dogs don’t mind all the attention,” he added wryly.

There is usually never a dull moment for the K-9 unit. Between training, missions and ‘play time,’ Hartman and Cross do their best to keep everything up to par and in ship shape.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is just trying to have as much patience as we can (with the dogs),” said Cross motioning to Thomas who is barking and pacing within his kennel. “They are great dogs; they just have loads of energy. We try to keep them as busy as possible but sometimes we just have to come in and do office work, which means they have to just hang out.”

The sun begins to set as the workday comes to an end for the duo and their trusty pals. Another successful day of ensuring the safety for travelers at Coleman dock is now behind them. Tomorrow they will wake up and do it all over again but for now it’s back to the base to return their gear and unwind. Evy and Thomas pile into the black K-9 SUV and calmly collapse into furry heaps in the back of the vehicle.

Hartman and Cross head back to Pier 36, unload all their gear and lead the dogs back to their kennels for some well deserved relaxation. Before their kennel gates are closed, Hartman and Cross kneel and stroke their respective dogs’ shiny coats speaking words of praise for jobs well done. No barks or noises are uttered back, instead two lopsided tongues and wagging tails say it all.

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