December 20, 2001

Bomb-Sniffing Dog Joins CUPD

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When the Cornell community held a vigil on Sept. 11, the newest member of the Cornell Police was there to serve and protect. An energetic youth trained in explosives detection, this rookie has smooth black hair, a prominent nose, and boundless energy.

He also has four paws.

Sabre is a bomb-sniffing dog who joined the police force last June. He works with Officer Jeff Montesano, who petitioned for two years to add a dog to the squad.

“I just wanted to add another tool,” Montesano said. “We don’t get a lot of [bomb] threats but we wanted to be prepared.”

“With the addition of our canine department, we’ve been able to add a new dimension of safety to the campus,” said Curtis Ostrander, assistant director of public safety.

Sabre and Montesano work together to “sweep” suspicious areas for explosives including cars, buildings, airplanes and packages. The dog searches for the scent of gunpowder and other explosives, and he currently recognizes 12 scents.

“All of them [explosive devices] have a common ingredient in them, and that’s what he’s taught to smell,” Montesano said. “A dog can smell up to 800 times more than a human can.”

When William Boice, director of Cornell Police, approved the canine program in June, Montesano attended an advanced workshop on canines. There, he learned how to look for the right dog one that was energetic and a good retriever, with a penchant for play.

Montesano found just what he was looking for at the Tompkins County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). He paid $38 for Sabre, a purebred two-year-old black labrador who had arrived at the SPCA that same day.

The officer and dog trained together for 120 hours this summer — “three weeks straight” at the Southern Tier Police Canine Association in Binghamton.

“It’s not rocket science at all,” Montesano said. He described the training program, which is based on a reward system. The officer hides a tennis ball in a box with a small hole in the top, so the dog has to stick his nose in it to retrieve the ball. Inside the box was gunpowder, which the dog smelled before getting the ball, which he can subsequently play with.

“He affiliates the toy with that odor of an explosive,” Montesano said.

In the field, the dog’s reward is a “kong” a red rubberized play toy on a blue string.

“It’s a big game for him,” Montesano said. The officer gets the dog excited and ready to work by showing him the kong. Montesano then hides the toy in his pocket and leads the dog around the suspicious area so Sabre can give it the “sweep.”

When Sabre smells an explosive, his behavior changes instead of excitedly searching, he sits back on his hind legs at full attention. Monetesano tells Sabre “show me,” and the dog will gently place his nose on the area, indicating the precise location of explosives. This helps the bomb squad locate an explosive quickly and accurately.

Montesano explained that, unlike drug dogs who scratch at materials they’ve discovered, bomb-sniffing dogs keep a safe distance from the object.

“He’s a passive indication, rather than an aggressive indication,” Montesano said.

When Sabre finds an explosive, he gets the kong as a reward. “It’s all in what you make out of the toy, too. Black labs are pure energy,” Montesano explained, adding that praise is also an important component of working with the dog. The officer will play tug of war with Sabre, eventually giving up.

“You always let him win and he’s proud as a peacock of it,” Montesano said.

Since their graduation from training in mid-August, Sabre and Montesano have had plenty of work to do. Aside from checking packages on campus, the pair work together to check for explosives when dignitaries and other high profile visitors come to campus.

For example, Sabre’s first assignment was “sweeping” the Prince of Thailand’s motorcade, room, and airplane. On Sept. 11, he and Montesano checked the stairs of the Olin Library terrace, where President Hunter R. Rawlings III would speak.

“I think that [it’s] nice for the Cornell community to know that we were prepared,” Montesano said. “We’ve looked a lot and we’re happy to say we haven’t found any [explosives].”

The dog-and-officer duo has also performed demonstrations for Hasbrouck apartments, Employee Day during the football season, and have assisted other departments.

“Without Sabre, I couldn’t do the job, and it’s vice versa,” Montesano said.

Sixteen hours of training each month to keep Sabre up-to-date on his skills and allow him to learn new ones. Montesano said he would like to start training Sabre to track humans.

Aside from increasing campus security, Sabre “provides an introduction for some people to the police department,” said Susan Murphy ’73, vice president of student and academic services and a self-professed dog-lover.

“I’m just jealous that they can take a dog to work and I can’t,” she added.

The cost of having a canine program is approximately $8,000, according to Montesano. The College of Veterinary Medicine provides all of Sabre’s medical treatment, and Hills Science Diet donates his food.

Montesano said people, including other officers, respond well to the dog.

“He’s just like one of the members. They all love him,” he said, adding that the department is “in the process of getting a badge” for the dog’s collar. Sabre has shield number 100.

Boice said he was apprehensive at first about implementing a canine program. Now, he says, “I just love this dog. He’s great. It’d do it all over again.”

At the end of the day, Sabre rides home with Montesano, who says his two children love the dog. The officer stressed that Sabre is friendly and not dangerous.

“People I think sometimes feel afraid of him, because he’s a police dog,” Montesano said. “I want people to feel secure around him. He’s not an aggressive dog. His job is solely explosive detection. He does not bite, he does not look for drugs,” Montesano added. “He’ll lick you to death before anything else.”

Archived article by Heather Schroeder