As a puppy, Joel was identified early as a dog with a great sniffer.
Just one of the hundreds of dogs that have gone through Vapor Wake training at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine's Canine Performance Sciences program, Joel soon learned to use his sense of smell at the highest level.
By March 2016, two-year-old Joel was sniffing out explosives as a member of the New York Police Department and had been renamed Paulie in honor of a fallen police officer. Joel graduated from the police department's training program with eight other Vapor Wake dogs, who are instructed to follow the moving scent of an explosive.
Vapor Wake dogs, used by law enforcement and other government agencies throughout the country, are the focus of the university’s Canine Performance Sciences program, which has been helping advance the breeding, development and training of detection dogs since the 1990s.
“Our mission is to advance that technology through behavior, genetics and physical performance,” said Pam Haney, manager of the breeding program.
Vapor Wake is a scientifically-based method for selecting, training, and employing dogs for the detection of hand-carried and body-worn hazardous materials such as improvised explosive devices. The technology was developed by Canine Performance Sciences program members Dr. Paul Waggoner and Jeanne Brock, and former Auburn University employees John Pearce, Tim Baird, Daniel MacAfee and Robert Leonard. It received a US patent in 2015.
The program at Auburn partners with AMK9, an academy in Anniston that owns the license to trademark Vapor Wake technology and distributes the dogs to handlers around the country.
Breeding future detection dogs
At Canine Performance Sciences, developing a detection dog begins before birth.
The breeding program at Canine Performance Sciences aims to advance the quality of its dogs through genetic selection. It works with the Theriogenology Service at the Wilford and Kate Bailey Small Animal Teaching Hospital to selectively breed superior canines that are healthy and sound.
Canine Performance Sciences has had an in-house breeding program since 2000, according to Haney. She said they first determine which of their dogs would be best as breeders.
After a female dog is selected to breed, she will produce puppies for two years. The program currently has 10 to 12 female breeders. Each year, there are 12 to 15 breedings, producing from 60 to 90 puppies, according to Haney. After a female produces 2-to-3 litters of puppies, they are sold to be detection dogs.
“They get to do the job they love,” Haney said.
Development and training
A puppy’s development and training program starts immediately. In their first seven weeks, puppies are exposed to new surroundings and objects. At 7 weeks, puppy are brought into the community by volunteers and trainers. The puppies will remain in Auburn for six months, working with trainers to hone their skills and learn how to work for a reward.
The training progressively gets more intense, according to Haney.
At six months, the puppies will head to prisons in Florida and Georgia for additional training until they are 10 months old. The dogs return to Auburn at 10 months for final training and evaluations before transferring to AMK9 Academy, where their training is completed and they’re paired with handlers.
The puppies will go through evaluations at 3, 6, 10 and 11 months to ensure that they meet the program’s performance and environmental standards..
Haney said the trainers at Canine Performance Sciences each have 10 dogs. With trainers only having six and half hours to train all of them, volunteers from the university and community are a big help to them.
“We’re able to give each puppy additional attention and training,” Haney said. “More puppies are able to spend time working. It gives the puppy that extra boost to socialization.”
Those puppies not selected as Vapor Wake dogs will go on to be service and search and rescue dogs. Others will stay at Canine Performance Sciences to help with projects in olfaction research.
Haney said the program would not be able to work on advancing its canine detection technology without support from Auburn University and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Auburn University and the College of Veterinary Medicine give us that platform to do those advancements,” Haney said. “They are a major role in helping us be that world class program.”
Community members have helped support the program through donations. The program raised more than $15,900 during the university’s second Tiger Giving Day that was held in February. The funds will allow the program to buy a portable ultrasound machine, 4 video cameras, 4 temperature monitoring systems, 4 whelping boxes and 20 whelping blankets for its pregnant mothers.
Haney said the program is always working to get better.
“We’re always moving forward,” Haney said. “We want to do the most research to give the whole dog the best chance at success.”
Auburn University students and community members interested in being a volunteer for the program can visit the College of Veterinary Medicine's website at www.vetmed.auburn.edu.