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Top dog Charlie retires after a career sniffing out trouble

September 24, 1999
USA Today

CHANTILLY, Va. -- In the world of explosives-detecting canines, there is good, there is very good, and then there is Charlie.

Forget, for a moment, Charlie's determined rise, from guide-dog-school flunkout to dean of all bomb-smellers for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Put aside the accomplishments of nearly five years of distinguished sniffing -- the cases made, the 200 illegal guns rooted out, the 500 pounds of explosives discovered.

Focus instead on this pasture, near a Civil War battlefield, where the 70-pound black Labrador retriever once astonished ATF Agent Grace Sours, his Homo sapiens partner, by smelling out a 130-year-old cannonball.

''That means he tracked the scent of (gun) powder from the middle of the last century,'' says Sours, Charlie's full-time handler since he joined ATF in January 1995 as the agency's first dog assigned to gun and bomb detection. ''You ask what the limits of his capabilities are, and I've got to say they haven't even been reached yet.''

Alas, the limits of Charlie's career are a different matter. The dog who wears ATF badge K9-001 is leaving active duty today. In effect, Charlie is stepping aside for a friend. Sours, 36, is being promoted to a headquarters assignment.

At 6, Charlie has a couple of good years left in him -- and his nose. But the agency, unsure how Charlie would respond to a new handler, allowed him to take early retirement. So Charlie will live with Grace, her husband, Mike Sours, and their two cats in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Charlie leaves a growing field behind him. The use of dogs by law enforcement has expanded greatly in the 1990s, thanks to renewed interest by local departments and federal agencies. Dogs are trained not only to ferret out bombs, guns and drugs, but also to handle airport security and help with anti-terrorism duty.

The North American Police Work Dog Association of Perry, Ohio, counts 2,600 local, state and federal dog handlers as members, up from about 1,000 five years ago. Nearly a dozen federal agencies, from the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency to the Internal Revenue Service and the Agriculture Department, use more than 2,000 dogs for official business. Their assignments range from simple patrols to sniffing out counterfeit currency and illegally imported plants.

ATF, which also employs 68 dogs specializing in arson, expects to have trained 26 bomb specialists like Charlie by the end of this year. The agency has also trained dogs for the CIA and IRS and for next year's Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Dogs as weapons

The growth represents a remarkable turnaround from the early 1990s when, veteran handlers say, law dogs incurred some particularly nasty press. In California, police were photographed using dogs, usually large German shepherds, for crowd control. Dogs were trained to attack civilians who threatened their police handlers. After many complaints, departments began to cut back on using dogs for crowd work.

''Some departments were using (dogs) as weapons,'' recalls Jim Watson, executive secretary of the North American Police Work Dog Association. ''They're not, of course. They're scientific instruments. But one (television or newspaper) picture of a dog locked on a kid's leg in some street incident brings back the worst memories of the 1960s. The image has come a long way since then.''

Charlie's career has followed a similar trajectory.

He was bred for service as a guide dog for blind and disabled adults in Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island, but washed out of the training course in his first year. But Charlie's problem -- an incurable urge to chase interesting scents -- proved attractive to the ATF, which had been training dogs to detect materials that could start fires and was looking to expand into explosives.

The idea, Sours says, was that dogs could be especially useful in detecting hidden guns by smelling the residue of burnt powder. In May 1995, Charlie graduated from a specially designed 18-week course and became ATF's first explosives-detecting canine.

When it comes to smelling, dogs have an inbred advantage. Scientists believe dogs' wider nostrils and greater capacity -- a German shepherd' s nose has 20 times more smell receptors than a human's -- might account for their skill.

Then there is a dog's trainability. Sniffers such as Charlie receive verbal praise -- something as simple as ''good boy'' or ''nice job' ' -- and vitamin-enriched dog treats each time they correctly identify an explosives scent. They work out each day.

Seven days a week, Charlie trains to keep his body in shape and his skills sharp. A typical workout includes a mile or more of jogging and object-location drills. On one favorite site -- a field of clover here -- Sours uses a third party to scatter bits of exploded pipe bomb, some only an inch in length, over several acres. That way, Charlie can't follow her familiar scent to the objects. Tail wagging and nose near the ground, it takes him only minutes to find what's hidden.

For an agency such as the ATF, which took some hard knocks after the 1993 Waco siege, Charlie offers an additional boon: good public relations. His detecting skill and media savvy -- he can locate a camera nearly as quickly as a dynamite stick -- landed Charlie on network television and made him a favorite with seniors and kids' groups.

''Morale would be down and Charlie would go on Good Morning America, and everybody would brighten up,'' says Tracy Hite, an ATF spokeswoman who was a field agent for most of the dog's career. ''Now, I've got senior agents coming up to me (at ATF's Washington, D.C., headquarters), and saying: 'Charlie's retiring? What's going to happen to him?' ''

Charlie has the record to back up his reputation, a claim that cannot be made about every public relations success.

In January 1997, Charlie amazed handler Sours by roaming hundreds of yards from where a bomb had destroyed a Georgia abortion clinic and turning up a tiny piece of metal flange that had been missed by human searchers. The flange was traced to a military canister, which allowed authorities to begin to piece together a case against Eric Robert Rudolph, a North Carolina man currently wanted in the Georgia clinic bombing as well as in the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics and an attack on another abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala.

In the wake of the Olympics bombing in 1996, Charlie worked security in Atlanta, performing thousands of searches. He became the first dog to get a federal search warrant based entirely on his sniffing. Going head to head, he beat a state-of-the-art electronic detector, finding minute traces of explosives residue that the digital sniffer had overlooked. As he retires, the dog is helping to build an ongoing case against a paramilitary group that neither Sours nor Charlie, for that matter, can talk about.

Along the way, he's built a professional relationship with his human partner that is the envy of other dog handlers. ''That (leash) between us is like a telephone wire,'' says Sours, a 12-year ATF veteran.

''I know what he's trying to tell me as he moves, stops, looks, pulls taut. And he knows what I'm thinking, from my scent, the tone of my voice, how I handle him. It's the way we work.''

That close relationship might have saved the lives of both partners. Entering a house where hundreds of pounds of stolen military explosives had been hidden, Charlie gave the pre-arranged signal for ''explosives present.'' He sat down. But instead of waiting quietly for his snack, the dog began to rock his head back and forth and to look anxiously at Sours. She got the message. The smell was nearly overpowering, indicating a huge cache.

''I was out the door as quickly as he was,'' she remembers.

Protecting his partner

Like most great partnerships, the relationship is both professional and personal. Grace and Charlie have pulled duty in 28 states and spent more than 300 nights on the road. In a hotel room, Charlie is protective, waiting for Grace to turn in before positioning himself between her bed and the door. At the Sours' home right after training school, Charlie got into bed with the couple and tried to push husband Mike to the floor. ''You couldn't blame Charlie,'' she says. ''But he and Mike had to have a talk.''

Because Charlie is the first bomb dog to leave active duty, retirement is unknown country. Grace jokes that he'll ''just eat and watch Jerry Springer,'' but she's worried enough to have already hired a dog-sitter. And she's looking into volunteer programs in which Charlie would spend weekends with senior citizens or kids.

Sours is also wondering how she'll adjust to Charlie's retirement. On a solo visit to ATF headquarters, Sours says, she was struck by how colleagues automatically look at her feet, where Charlie is usually positioned. She's caught herself doing the same thing, and feeling a sudden urge to pull a dog treat from her pocket.

''I knew going in this job would have long hours and pressure and danger,'' says Sours, who had no pets as a kid. ''And I knew about how dogs bond to their handlers. And now I know it works the other way, too.''

Copyright 1999, USA Today, a division of Gannett Co., Inc.

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