Xantos, a German shepherd, and Marco, a Belgian malinois, are unusual dogs. They do not get excited about chasing cars or fetching sticks. What they like to do is find bombs. They are part of the FBI-accredited bomb squad at UGA.
“We realized canines could be a tremendous advantage to the UGA Police Department after the 1996 Olympics were on campus,” says Police Chief Jimmy Williamson. “UGA has faculty members who sometimes do controversial research, and we often have VIPs and large crowds visiting campus. In all cases, we take their protection very seriously.”
The dogs and their human partners sweep various locations looking for explosive devices. The teams practice up to 16 hours a week in 20- to 90-minute intervals. Officers who are paired with the dogs receive no additional compensation beyond a five-hour allowance for care and maintenance of the dogs.
“In a lot of ways, the dogs are no different than having a human partner,” says Williamson. “Like humans, the dogs can get hot or tired, and their partner needs to be able to know when that happens. He has to know how much he can ask of the dog and what the dog can do. The handlers need to build rapport with their dogs the same way they would with a human.”
Xantos and Marco work on campus, but they also help the UGA Police Department meet their public service mission by assisting law enforcement agencies across the state. They have worked with MARTA, the Atlanta Police Department, the U.S. military, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and other universities in Georgia. They have conducted sweeps before visits from U.S. senators and the FBI director, and they even worked aboard Marine One, the president’s helicopter.
UGA’s dogs began training as puppies and were about three years old when they graduated from programs in Texas and North Carolina. They cost $8,000 to $10,000 each and will work seven to nine years before they retire.
“These dogs love to work,” says Williamson. “They work and train when it’s hot and cold, rainy and sunny. They work inside, outside, on carpet, on wood, and on tile. We train with large amounts of an agent-and small amounts. You never know what you’ll find out there and we want to make sure the dogs are prepared for anything. If they never encounter it in training, they can forget to look for it.”
The dogs also train on a variety of scents that are known to be used in explosive devices. Williamson stresses that the training is conducted using inert devices whenever possible and, when explosive compounds are used in training, it is never around people.
Williamson says that Marco and Xantos receive the most calls for service of all police department units. When they finish a hard day at work, they receive care-and medical attention when needed-through a partnership with the College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Our goal is to have the tools in place to deal with any credible threats,” says Williamson, “and we are lucky at UGA to have the resources and support from our administration and the units on campus so we can do that. The best we can hope is that those threats never become real.”