Following the scent

Auburn's canine detection research helps keep the country safe

Paul Waggoner is co-director of Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences program. Photo by Julie Bennett.

Pongo, Potter and Quarter have just returned from prison.

They’ve just completed a five-month stint in the Big House in Florida, and now they’ve returned to Auburn, where they plan to resume their lives as productive members of society.

But what they want more than that, perhaps, are bowls of water and lots of belly rubs.

These cute dogs — yes, they’re 10-11-month-old puppies — were in prison as part of an Auburn University program that has extraordinarily serious consequences — they’re in the latter stages of the process to be weapon-detecting dogs.

It’s a program in which Auburn was a pioneer and continues to be a leader, even as priorities have shifted at the university over the decades. We’ll get back to the dogs in the prison yard, but first, a little history.

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Auburn got involved in canine detection programs around the time Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, because of a bomb onboard, killing 270 people.

“At that time, there was a big push with the FAA to improve aviation security, including new instrumentation for discovering explosive materials,” says L. Paul Waggoner, co-director (with Craig Angle) of Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences program. “They knew there were dogs capable of detecting explosives, but they didn’t know how well or how reliably they could do it.”

The Institute for Biological Detection Systems was born at Auburn, and researchers realized there was great interest in what dogs could do in the security arena.

“The demand for information and for science to guide the use of dogs for doing these detection tasks increased,” Waggoner says. “I think the main driver of the increased demand was the product itself. We started to develop and put out information what was supportive of the use of dogs for detection, and there really hadn’t been that information out there before. Scientific information fueled more interest in understanding how dogs did this and how to train people to use the dogs to do this work.”


A milestone for Auburn’s program was buying property at the former Fort McClellan in Anniston. That land allowed the university to evolve from research and development into also doing hands-on training of the dogs.

“It began in about 2000 with a gift of dogs from the Australian Customs Service, who had really been among the first people to look at breeding dogs specifically for detection work,” Waggoner recalls. “We started a breeding program to determine how to best raise and produce dogs to do detection work.”

In 2015, Auburn patented the Vapor Wake training process for dogs, in which dogs could use the thermal “plume” left by people in motion (think of it like the trail an airplane leaves when it flies) to detect human-borne weapons.

“That was sort of the first systematic attempt at using dogs for the detection of hand-carried and body-worn explosives.”

In 2012, even before the patent, Auburn licensed Vapor Wake technology to American K-9 Detection Services, and they also licensed the company the use of the Fort McClellan land. Auburn turned its focus back to research and development, and what is now known as Canine Performance Sciences is part of the College of Veterinary Medicine.


The Auburn program today focuses on how to best breed and train dogs to be detection animals.

“We probably have over 150 dogs in our program right now, and we produce through the breeding program anywhere from 40-60 puppies a year,” Waggoner says.

Early on, from the ages of about 5 months until 10 months, the puppies in Auburn’s program go to prison, one of several prisons Auburn uses in Florida and Georgia.

“You have to be among the very best inmates to be a part of the program,” Waggoner says. “Those inmates get instruction in general dog care and raising that can lead to credits that can be used for an associate degree.”

During their time at the prison, the Auburn dogs are trained in how to recognize certain odors.

“When they return to us, they’re in their last months of development until they’re about a year old and go into detection-dog training,” Waggoner says.

After that, Auburn decides which dogs are ready to sell, meaning they’ll go to work providing security — perhaps at a large corporation or a police force or airport.

“Almost all of our dogs are great at doing detection work,” Waggoner says. “The real difference in whether they’re sellable or not is what we call environmental soundness.”

That means whether a detection dog can continue doing its thing when there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people around it.

“It’s a different ballgame doing this at an 80,000-seat stadium event like an Auburn football game,” Waggoner says. “Those dogs with that extreme environmental soundness are the ones that get sold.”

A high-end training dog from Auburn can sell for more than $10,000, Waggoner says, and once dogs are sold, they continue to be trained before they go to work.

“They’re normally trained for many more weeks to the final product, but that’s done by the companies we sell them to,” he says. “That’s what we got out of the business doing at Fort McClellan.”

Seeing a dog leave the program “can be tough for our people, but this is what they do,” Waggoner says. “It’s probably harder in some ways for the people who take care of our young puppies in the nursery. It’s probably more difficult to see them leave to go to the correctional facilities.”

Paul Waggoner works with Quatro, one of Auburn’s canine detection dogs. Photo by Julie Bennett.


Waggoner says the attention is on dogs to do this work for a couple of reasons.

First of all, they’re just able to do it.

“Thankfully, dogs have evolved over time to have this very unique relationship with people,” he says. “There is not another animal that has evolved to be in a social relationship with people like dogs. Dogs are more sensitive to human directional commands, like pointing or gazing somewhere, without any training, than our closest genetic companions, monkeys and chimpanzees. Dogs do that naturally.”

Secondly, dogs are just, well, so darned cute.

“They are universally acceptable in public,” Waggoner says. “If someone was walking around with their detection pig or whatever, it probably wouldn’t be as acceptable as people walking around with their Labrador retrievers.”

Those retrievers, actually, have great demeanors to be detection dogs, Waggoner says, as do German shepherds, Belgian Malinois, German short-haired pointers, springer spaniels and even cocker spaniels. “All those dogs are usually pretty social with people,” he says.

Auburn’s dogs, once they return from the correctional facilities, are usually housed at homes.

“They live with their families and are generally like other dogs at home,” Waggoner says. “The only difference is if they don’t have a job to do, they’ll find one to do and you won’t be too happy with the results at home. Whether it’s dismantling the front porch or chewing the tires on the car, they’ll find work to do. … They really enjoy working. They enjoy using their nose to find things, and they enjoy the treats they get for finding things.”


So, what might become of Pongo, Potter and Quarter?

Dogs that came before them have gotten jobs with the New York City Counterterrorism Unit, at Disney theme parks or at major airports around the country.

Assuming they make the detection grade, they’ll be helping to keep our country safe.

“We love dogs, but at the end of the day, our mission is really not about that dog,” Waggoner says. “Certainly, it’s about its welfare and to be sure it’s healthy and happy, but our attention is really on what we can do to better protect the nation against threats.”

Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Julie Bennett is an Auburn-based freelance contributor.

This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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