Ocsi, a 2-year-old, male German Shepherd, trained by the Canine Training and Operations Center, checks parked vehicles for explosives at Embassy Kabul, October 2020. State Department photo
By Eric Weiner
It turns out that Diplomatic Security’s best friend is also the world’s best bomb detector.
The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Canine Training and Operations Center (CTOC) is a world-class facility that procures and trains highly reliable explosives detection dogs that are deployed to protect U.S. diplomatic posts overseas.
The CTOC program began operations in 2015 and is housed in a 270,000 square-foot unmarked facility that “hides in plain sight” due to the nature of its mission and the sophisticated operations needed to fulfill the center’s critical explosives detection work. The program’s mission: Be the best explosives detection canine facility in the world.
In 2019, CTOC shifted ownership and in-house training of explosive detection dogs from Worldwide Protective Service (WPS) contractors to the DSS Office of Overseas Protective Operations (OPO). This change allowed for safe and effective canine procurement, thorough training, and bonding between canine and handler. It also helped to ensure that dogs deployed in support of security operations are highly qualified and operationally effective.
“DSS takes programmatic and contractual oversight very seriously at CTOC and employs a team of personnel to manage the program around the clock,” said OPO Deputy Division Chief Dane Hixon.
DSS relies on WPS program contractors to staff overseas high-threat diplomatic posts with bomb detection canines and handlers. WPS contract providers identify qualified handlers who pair and certify with their dogs at CTOC. Through the WPS contract, DSS employs more explosives detection dogs overseas than any other U.S. government agency.
The CTOC facility also has improved and expanded its kennel, veterinary, and animal medical space, plus a training area to qualify dogs and their handlers before deployment. The medical facility added a new, state-of-the-art computed tomography machine to the suite of cutting-edge equipment used to care for dogs. The computed tomography machine can scan the inside of a large canine in seconds. The stringent standards used by the CTOC veterinary hospital earned accreditation by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). Only 12–15 percent of the top U.S. and Canadian veterinary practices hold the “AAHA-accredited” designation.
“CTOC has come a long way, the oversight is outstanding, and it is a truly a world-class program,” said DSS Deputy Assistant Secretary and Assistant Director for International Programs Cornell Chasten Jr., following a tour of the facility in March.
Dogs that graduate from CTOC must successfully demonstrate myriad detection capabilities and pass related tests before deploying with their handlers to protect U.S. diplomatic posts overseas. CTOC assigns approximately 200 dogs to the WPS program overseas, primarily at U.S. embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are dynamic security environments, and the dogs need downtime too. Dogs and handlers receive scheduled rotational breaks and maintain skills through training monitored by the CTOC.
The CTOC and the Antiterrorism Assistance Program (ATA), together with Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT), expanded partnerships with other nations in response to global terrorism threats. CTOC collaborates with partner nations to provide explosives-detection dogs and the necessary training to deploy in support of counterterrorism missions. Current ATA partner nations with CT-funded dogs include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Nepal, Oman, Thailand, and the Dominican Republic, with plans to expand into the Maldives.
Explosive-detection dog training is critical to U.S. strategic partners working to secure their borders. For example, ATA dogs have had more than 50 successful identifications of explosive-related materials attempting to cross the Jordanian border since 2017.
The four-to-six-week ATA program trains each handler and dog as a team. DSS trainers return with participants to their countries for another two weeks of on-site training, intending to make them self-sufficient.
“The CTOC procures and trains ATA dogs, then pairs them with their partner nation handlers to be trained as a team, and provides ongoing quality control and medical support for the programs,” said DSS Deputy Assistant Secretary and Assistant Director for Training Julie Cabus.
CTOC expanded medical oversight, mentor coverage, and staffing to ensure the dogs are well cared for in partner nations. A travel team—two mentors and one veterinarian—visits each nation with an active ATA dog program to monitor the dogs’ progress, status, and health. The goal is to visit all partner nations on a routine, semi-annual basis. After-action reports by the CTOC travel teams, with input from ATA, record and measure the program’s effectiveness. Despite the global pandemic interrupting in-person visits, ATA has maintained virtual contact and close communication during travel restrictions.
CTOC trains and tests the dogs to identify each element of an explosives device, so no matter the composition, dogs will be able to detect it. CTOC’s blast forensics provides the trainers with the new information they need to keep dogs’ scent detection skills up-to-date.
“If there’s a bombing somewhere around the world, our chemist creates and analyzes that device here,” said CTOC Operation Manager Josh Carter, “so we make sure that our dogs go out to post, knowing the odor and the product so that they can detect it.”
CTOC’s on-site forensic explosives chemist has even developed special containers to transport explosive sample kits to overseas posts for training the dogs. The washable containers prevent sample contamination during transport using a unique design that allows odors to escape a closed container when in use.
A dog can usually detect the odor of an explosives device well before it reaches the target and will give off alerts; thus, handlers need to be able to read their dogs’ behavioral cues as they approach their targets. This pre-warning can provide the seconds needed to save lives before a potentially lethal explosive device detonates.
With the combination of a dog’s innate abilities of scent detection, its love of work, high-energy level, and desire to please its handler, each elite dog—trained and validated through CTOC—becomes an unparalleled resource and the best detector to locate explosive devices.
Dogs start working at a young age and typically “retire” by age seven. CTOC implements a detailed policy for dog retirement and adoption. CTOC also checks and verifies the dog’s health before the adoption process begins, then closely tracks the adoption process to verify that every dog finds a good home. These skilled canines deserve the best following their years of service to the Department of State.
Eric Weiner is a public affairs specialist with the Diplomatic Security Service.