Canine Agents (ATF) - Making our World a Safer Place
HealthyPet recently had the privilege of watching some of the country’s finest in action: special agent canine handlers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). During our interview in Los Angeles, the agents and their canine partners demonstrated some of their training techniques as well as methods for apprehending suspects.
MINIMIZING THE RISK
The job these dogs do is dangerous. As Jeff Perryman, an agent from Detroit, puts it, “Our dogs are part of our team, and—just like every other ATF agent out there—our job involves taking a certain amount of risk. Our dogs accept this. They want to work; they want to do the job for us.”
But the bureau does everything it can to minimize the potential for harm. Just like the human agents, the dogs wear bullet-proof vests. They also aren’t sent after a suspect who is shooting at them. Says Todd Hoover, an agent from San Diego, “Working on the explosives side of it, I’m always a couple feet away from my dog, Corey, so whatever he’s exposed to is what I’m exposing myself to.”
As soon as a dog identifies something suspicious, he is removed from the danger. Todd once received a call from a checkpoint where they had stopped a driver who had outstanding warrants for pipe bombs. “When the agents searched the vehicle, they saw a black box with wires coming out of it,” Todd says. “They wanted me to bring my dog to search this vehicle, and I said ‘No. I’m not sending my dog on that. You need to call the bomb squad.’”
IT’S ALL IN THE TRAINING
Susan Raichel, group supervisor of the Los Angeles field division, tells us that agents go through two academy classes. The first is a generic criminal investigator class; agents for all federal law enforcement agencies attend this class together. The second class is a new agent training program exclusively for ATF criminal investigators. It encompasses everything from law to explosives, firearms, and hands-on shooting of Title 2 weapons, including machine guns.
The initial training for the dogs lasts about eight weeks, but it takes about a year for them to fully understand how to respond to all the signals, sights, and sounds of an operation. “There are so many situations in which we will throw what’s called a noise–flash diversionary device, or a flash-bang. It’s not an explosive, but it makes a loud noise and a bright flash; it’s meant to disorient a suspect. However, it’s even more disorienting to a dog whose ears are so much more sensitive than ours,” Jeff explains. “The dogs also have to get used to a lot of people running and to our uniform. Anybody in the area not dressed like us could very well be our suspect, so the dog will begin to concentrate on that person.”
The agents teach the dogs what they call neutrality to gunfire so they don’t become aggressive if shots are fired. “We don’t bring dogs to a gunfight,” Jeff reiterates. “The dogs are employed to locate people and objects for us. We don’t want them thinking, That guy’s shooting at us; I should bite him. We will specifically work on exposure to gunfire, not to where it hurts them or damages their ears, but so they get used to it and understand it’s part of the job. They will start barking, but they are not allowed to get aggressive toward a gun, whether it’s mine or a suspect’s.”
A PEACEFUL RESOLUTION
The tactical maneuvers the agents employ are based on their dogs’ implicit obedience. Jeff demonstrates canine agent Brody’s hair-trigger response to commands and shows us some of the ATF’s more commonly used maneuvers.
He explains how important it is for the dog to be trained to stop barking, for instance, if the agents need to question a suspect. Jeff asks Brody to start barking and then says, “Good boy. Quiet.” Brody stops barking instantly. “Simple as that,” Jeff says.
He then shows us how well Brody heels. The dog heels to the left to keep him on the side opposite the agent’s weapon.
Next, Jeff demonstrates how the ATF takes down a suspect using a dog without force. Susan, playing the role of the suspect, walks to a tree and waits. Jeff advances on her, and Brody heels. Jeff yells, “Turn around!” He stops Brody several feet away from Susan as he continues to advance on her, yelling, “Get on the ground!”
He stops and explains, “We’d cuff the suspect at this point. The best tool to keep a suspect nice and calm is to have the dog walking next to us.” We ask why he kept Brody back several feet from Susan. “There’s no need to bring him up to the suspect; that could make the person want to run, which is what we’re trying to avoid in the first place,” Jeff says. “Yet Brody’s close enough so that if we get in a brawl, we’ve got the dog right there.
“We don’t want the dog to bite the suspect. Our objective is not to use these dogs in a malicious manner,” Jeff says. “It’s simply to get the suspect to give up so we can take him or her into custody. That way, the suspect doesn’t get hurt and we don’t get hurt, bottom line.”
The dogs stay with their human partners 24 hours a day. “Cisco’s stuck with me,” laughs Tom Tallas, an agent from Dallas. “He’s a good dog; he likes to keep that bond.” Because they are service dogs—and they carry a badge—these canine agents are often permitted to go places other dogs can’t. “I take him to restaurants if I can; I take him in the cabin if we fly commercial—everywhere I can to keep him around people,” says Tom.
Not only do Brody, Cisco, and Corey get plenty of exercise due to the nature of their job, but they are also fed an appropriate diet. “We feed them twice a day, and we don’t let them have scraps or too many treats,” says Jeff.
When 9/11 occurred, the ATF had just started the special response team canine program in Detroit, and Jeff’s first dog, Boomer, had just finished his training. The agency wanted the team to respond, but they were concerned that Boomer hadn’t had enough search and rescue experience.
“They were worried for Boomer’s safety,” Jeff says. “And even though we wanted to go as well, we wanted Boomer to get more experience before we threw him into that type of environment. When Tom and I responded to Hurricane Katrina, both of our dogs were experienced.”
The dogs helped locate some people in Katrina’s aftermath, but they had to stay out of the water, most of which was sewage. “We didn’t want the dogs anywhere near it. If they’d had just a lick of that water, they would have gotten deathly ill,” explains Jeff.
“I think it’s good if you’re looking after your dogs,” Tom says. “There are so many threats—from bad guys, firearms, the environment. The government brought in specialized veterinarians who had volunteered to do checkups on all our dogs.”
SPEAKING OF VETERINARIANS
The agents are allowed to choose a regular veterinarian for their dogs. “We found a veterinary staff we trust a great deal,” says Jeff. “The veterinary hospital I go to is the one I’ve taken my dogs to since I was eight.”
The dogs generally visit the veterinarian about as often as a normal household dog. “I keep Cisco on the same routine as my pet dog,” Tom says. “Obviously, if our dogs are injured while working, we’ll take them to the veterinarian for that, but otherwise, we stay on the routine.”
“I’ve been to the veterinarian frequently because of the nature of my work with explosives,” Todd says. “Corey goes for regular examinations, too, but he also gets injured on the job. For instance, we were looking for a buried firearm, and some barbed wire that we hadn’t seen during the safety walkthrough was buried in the search area. Corey got a laceration on his leg, so I took him in for that.”
“One of the nice things about being the handler of one of these dogs is that we’re required to be with him when he’s receiving veterinary care,” Todd continues. “Corey once ingested some C4 by accident, and it necessitated a 24-hour emergency veterinary stay, so I was with him that whole 24 hours.”
CATCHING THE BAD GUYS
The agents then show us how their dogs chase down a suspect who’s decided to run. Jeff starts running, and after a few seconds, Tom sends Cisco after Jeff. Before the dog reaches him, Jeff turns around and gives up. Tom gives his dog only one command, and Cisco stops, turns around, and returns to Tom without touching Jeff.
Jeff and Tom then demonstrate what happens if a suspect continues to run. This time, when Tom sends Cisco after Jeff, the dog jumps on him. Tom never advances toward Jeff; he simply stays at a safe distance and lets his dog know “That’s enough.” He calls Cisco back, and the dog instantly lets go of Jeff and runs back to Tom. Because the dogs are so well trained, the agents never need to pull a dog off a suspect.
“We train the dogs to ensure that they don’t get sleeve-happy,” Jeff continues. “If the dog grabs a suspect’s jacket and the suspect slips it off, the dog knows to spit out the jacket and continue chasing the suspect.”
If the agents didn’t have their canine partners to help them, their job would be much more difficult. “There are robots and different scopes for the detection work,” says Tom. “But a dog can pick up something so quickly, before the technology will catch up. Dogs rely on what they do naturally. They can find things before we ever do.”
“Before we had our canine program, when we would serve a federal search warrant in a rural area,” Jeff says, “people would scatter into the woods. It’s a real dangerous situation to try to find them without a dog.”
The dogs will track a suspect’s every move. “They will primarily search crushed vegetation; the dogs will follow every direction, every turn, every sway that person made. If the person climbed a tree, the dogs would look up in the tree and start barking at him,” says Jeff. “The dogs have made our jobs a lot safer when we’re trying to locate suspects.”
The ATF will on rare occasion use their dogs for suspect apprehensions, where the dogs will actually run up to a suspect and hold on until the rest of the team arrives. Jeff describes one such occasion in which a suspect was running toward an apartment with kids playing outside. “We’re chasing him in 50 pounds of gear—We’re not catching the guy,” Jeff says. “So we used one of the dogs to apprehend him. It’s not just our safety that we use the dogs for. In that instance, we did not want the suspect to get to those innocent people.”
“On the explosives side, the dogs are indispensable,” says Todd. “We do a lot of national security special events—the Super Bowl, the Rose Bowl. There’s no way you can visually check under every seat in the stadium. Dogs, on the other hand, can do so much so fast and can locate things that are not visible to us. They can pick up items by scent that are buried underground or behind walls, which people just can’t do.”
AN UNBREAKABLE BOND
“Working as a canine handler is one of the most challenging things I’ve done for ATF, but in return it has become the most rewarding thing I’ve done for ATF,” says Tom. “You and your dog come to appreciate each other, you figure out a way to communicate, and you develop a close bond.”
Want to know how the story ends? Check out our follow up visit, one year later, here.
THE AGENTS AND THEIR DOGS
- Jeff Perryman: Has been an ATF agent for more than 17 years; has been part of the special response team (SRT) program for 15 years and an SRT canine handler for 8 years; based in Detroit, Jeff has been working with his German shepherd, Brody, for 2 years
- Todd Hoover: Worked for the FBI as a special agent before joining the ATF; an explosives expert and special agent canine handler from San Diego, Todd has been teamed with Corey, a Labrador retriever, for close to 5 years
- Tom Tallas: Was a criminal investigator with the ATF for 5 years before being transferred to the SRT in Dallas; currently a special agent canine handler, Tom has been working with Cisco, a German shepherd, for 3 years
- Susan Raichel: As an agent with the ATF arson and explosives unit, Susan investigated major fraud and arson cases for 13 years; she then became the public information officer for the Los Angeles field division, where she was recently promoted to group supervisor
We wondered whether the agents have always had an affinity for animals or whether that affection had grown out of working with their dogs. It turns out that they’ve had animals their whole lives. Growing up, Jeff had a husky and a mixed-breed dog, and in college, he and his housemates had a dog, too. Susan has had “everything from dogs and cats to lizards, snakes, and turtles.” She may not be a canine handler, but she has a 2-year-old black Lab and a 4-month-old yellow Lab at home. Todd had two dogs and four cats growing up. Now he has two indoor rabbits and Corey.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE ATF
The ATF is a premier source of specially trained accelerant- and explosives-detection canine teams. These teams are assigned to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies as well as selected foreign countries and regularly lend support to investigations and security efforts. Congress has recognized the ATF odor recognition proficiency standard as a benchmark for effective canine explosives detection.
These ATF agents and their canine partners are not only the epitome of true human–dog bonding but also, perhaps more importantly so, the backbone of the defense of this country. When there is a natural disaster or a terrorist act, these ATF agents and their canine partners are first on the scene. They perform the duties that keep us safe, allow us to sleep at night, and give us the ultimate peace of mind so our children can grow up in a world where playing freely is a given.
Special Agent Jeff Perryman’s canine partner, Brody, assists ATF agents and law enforcement officers in suspect tracking, area and building searches, and aggression control. Unfortunately, Brody was recently diagnosed with a tumor
in his spine. Jeff sent us an update:
Brody’s condition is good; however, we still may have to retire him. The tumor in his back caused a great deal of damage to one of his disks. The surgeon fused as much of the disk back together as he could, but he said that the disk will begin to deteriorate again within the next few years. The rate of deterioration will depend on how much we train and work him.
If we retire him in the next six months, he could still have a few healthy years before the back problems reappear. Needless to say, my recommendation will be to err on the side of caution. Brody has been a dedicated worker for us and has put his life on the line to make our jobs safer. The least we can do is make sure his next several years do not include terrible back pain.
For an update on Brody and the ATF program, please see our follow up article here.