March 2017
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Vapor Wake Dogs

An Auburn program has developed  a new breed of explosive detection.

Many people know service dogs play an abundance of roles. Roles such as aiding those with disabilities, visiting senior citizens in nursing homes and looking in on children in hospitals.

What people may not be familiar with are Vapor Wake dogs developed by researchers and trainers through a program at Auburn University.

These canines are bred and trained to be the most sophisticated ever in detecting explosive devices through their keen sense of smell.


Vapor Wake dogs are trained in various environments. This canine is at the Auburn University student center. They can screen hundreds of people at a time.

The research leading to today’s Vapor Wake technology arose out of a practical need, said Dr. Paul Waggoner. He is one of the heads of Canine Performance Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University and one of a team of Auburn officials who created the technology.

"We’re primarily a research and development program," Waggoner said.

Amtrak officials contacted the CPS program, said Waggoner, about a concern for greater security along its routes. They needed dogs to screen large numbers of riders without interrupting the flow of the crowd.

Waggoner and his team began developing the Vapor Wake technology in 2005. A patent was granted two years ago.

In an article for the spring 2016 issue of the "Auburn Veterinarian," Waggoner said this program is part of Auburn’s land-grant mission to foster economic development in Alabama and improve people’s lives around the state and the country.

Today, about 150 dogs and their handlers work with not only Amtrak but also the New York Police Department, Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority, the Disney Co., the Mall of America, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Texas Rangers and the Arlington (Texas) Fire Department among others.

According to the same story, the NYPD graduated a class of eight Vapor Wake dogs and their handlers just one day after the March 22, 2016, bombings in Brussels where 32 were killed and over 300 hurt.

That graduation was ironic in light of the Belgium crisis, said NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton, because one of America’s frontline defenses against terrorism is the Vapor Wake technology the dogs and their handlers are trained in. James Waters, the chief of NYPD’s counterterrorism unit, said the dogs outperform people and machines.

AMK9 now holds the commercial license for the dogs, and they’re responsible for conducting the training of the animals. The licensing agreement was made in 2013, and it was the largest commercial agreement ever for Auburn University.

According to AMK9 officials, traditional security dogs are trained to screen people one-on-one. Vapor Wake dogs can screen hundreds of people at a time as they go through an entrance by sampling the heat plumes left behind in their wake.

A second difference concerns the way the animals approach detection. Traditional security dogs are trained to hunt for stationery objects, while Vapor Wake dogs pay attention to the odor itself. They can continuously sample the air for an explosive target then locate the source while the target is moving.

Sporting breeds such as the Labrador Retriever are the preferred canines for the program.


Jeannie Brock holds a newborn puppy. Auburn University’s College of Veterinary School and the Canine Performance Sciences program collaborate to breed future Vapor Wake dogs. The program has received breeding stock from as far away as Australia.


"They are one of the few remaining dogs that are used for working," Waggoner said. "Also they are perceived by the public as friendlier than some other breeds.

"We use them because they are specifically good at using their noses. They’re independent … and trained to be very focused and less interested in people.

"Work begins even when they’re very small puppies. When they’re a little older, (they play) games where they use their noses. (As adults the dogs undergo) formal training for 10-12 weeks, then 6-8 weeks with a handler.

"We have a breeding program. We cooperate with the College of Veterinary Medicine."

CPS has been one of three recipients of Australian breeding stock.

"There are certain characteristics we specifically breed for. … The aim is to produce a better and better dog for (Vapor Wake) purposes – dogs that can detect hazardous materials, explosives and drugs.

"To work in these environments, the dog has to be able to focus amid clutter and noise.

"The use of dogs for detection is not a static capability. … We’re continuing to work with AMK9 and get feedback from the field. … (The program works) to fill in the gaps."

Canine work in bio-security may be on the horizon. It’s been shown that dogs can identify viruses and detect cancer.

The program began in 1990 as a research program. It is one of only two programs fully focused on working dogs at a veterinary school. Being at Auburn, Waggoner said, gives CPS researchers scientific resources that have no equal.


Maureen Drost is a freelance writer who lives in Huntsville and is a former newspaper reporter.