With today's advanced explosive detectors, is it time to retire the K9?

In an evolving frontline environment, are K9 dog detection squads still the best option, and will it be new technologies like ETD that really make a difference? Simon Williams and Nicholas Dale find out.


Around the world, security forces have depended on dogs to protect critical infrastructure, supply chains, and transportation assets. Specialised teams consisting of a trained K9 and a skilled handler are deployed to search for and detect explosives at static checkpoints and roving patrols.

While these teams have been effective, they have significant limitations as dogs require intense training over their working life, regular rest breaks, expensive kennel facilities, quarantine for international travel, specialised food, and water. In certain environments, such as extreme heat and humidity, a K9's attention span and effectiveness may be reduced. In other environments, cultural sensitivities may prohibit dogs from being deployed indoors.

Often viewed in competition with K9 assets, explosive detection technologies such as X-ray and bulk visualisation equipment can fill a variety roles by using screening and minimally invasive processes to determine whether an object, vehicle, or person may contain or possess explosive material. The same devices may also be equipped to identify the specific material. And new technologies now allow for the detection of trace amounts of explosives.

In general, K9s can only be trained to detect approximately ten different odors effectively, while some detection technologies, on the other hand, can detect a much wider range of threats including numerous types of explosives, toxic industrial chemicals, and even narcotics. Some technologies, such as Raman spectroscopy devices, are equipped with threat libraries allowing them to identify hundreds or even thousands of hazardous substances, and are modifiable and expandable with a simple software updates.

The current threat

Today, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are a common and prevalent threat worldwide. IEDs can be produced in varying sizes, function, containers and delivery methods. They can be composed of commercial, military, or homemade explosives, or military ordnance and ordnance components concealed within a vehicle, package, bag, hidden in the ground or in a building, or on a person, and can cause devastating destruction resulting from the mass of the explosives and the close proximity in which the IED can access targets.  

"Today, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are a common and prevalent threat worldwide."

As terrorist elements around the world continue to deploy IEDs as their most deadly weapon of choice in today’s battlespace, numerous explosive detection solutions are increasingly fielded in transport hubs such as airport and seaports, and by  security forces, to detect explosives threats at high value locations. Handheld and desktop ETD systems have proven to be the most operationally valuable equipment for modern security forces in detecting and defeating IEDs.

The latest generation of explosive detection technologies — specifically ETD solutions — offer an attractive solution to augment K9 assets, and in certain situations replace their use entirely.

So what options are out there?

Explosives trace detection (ETD)

The current threat environment of IEDs concealed on persons, in vehicles, and in the mail poses challenges for traditional explosive detection measures. Now operators seek equipment for screening vehicles in an outdoor environment, where ensuring standoff distances to protected facilities cis near impossible with large stationary bulk explosives detection units. Even bomb sniffing dogs fail to detect the threats at busy checkpoints, as they can become easily overstimulated or distracted.

Targeting the explosive trace of an IED in either particulate or vapour form is a more swift approach than bulk detection, as it takes only seconds to detect and identify the substance using current ETD equipment. 

ETD equipment is capable of detecting the slightest vapour and particulate explosives and chemical traces using sample-swipe techniques and contactless vapour detection.  Most units are desktop or handheld, ruggedised and cost-effective, environment-agnostic tools capable of being deployed quickly and effectively in airports and seaports, at diplomatic missions, and with security companies tasked with screening cargo, protecting transportation assets, critical infrastructure, and other installations. 

Particulate trace detection

Any explosive material that is handled by a person often leaves a residual trace on that person’s hands or the container in which it was placed. This residue can be passed on by secondary contact to other objects, such as their shoelaces, belt, door handles, zipper of a bag, or steering wheel of a vehicle, among other items which that person may have touched minutes or even hours after handling explosive material. Such residual traces can be detected by ETD technologies operating in particulate trace mode.

Operators of ETD units are able to collect samples from subject items, vehicles, or persons to detect and identify the presence of explosive residue down to a measurement of parts per billion. While explosives residue on the molecular level will not give off substantial vapour for K9 unit to detect, it can in many circumstances be collected and screened by ETD technologies incorporating particulate sampling. 

"ETD technologies are able to rapidly identify explosives present in otherwise innocuous-looking objects, vehicles, or persons."

By detecting the residue left on objects and persons, ETD technologies are able to rapidly identify explosives present in otherwise innocuous-looking objects, vehicles, or persons and justify a diversion of resources to conduct necessary in-depth screening.

Vapour trace detection

Some handheld ETD units can also detect explosive materials in vapour mode, by virtually “sniffing” for explosives vapour, mimicking the capability of a K9’s nose. Most bulk explosive materials emit vapour or gas as they decompose at the molecular level. The most advanced ETD technologies can even identify the chemical composition of the substance’s vapour at a detection level of a K9 (more than 90%) and serve more robustly and continuously in the field than dogs.

Using particulate and vapour ETD in concert is a valuable capability, and many security forces are acquiring ETD technologies which such dual functionality, allowing them to field both solutions in one handheld toolbox.

So is it time to retire the K9?

Unlike K9 assets, ETD devices require minimal consumable resources to operate, have a lower operating cost and lower total cost of ownership, require little operator training, have no break-in period, and can be easily transported and replaced. In certain parts of the world, ETD screening may be less culturally disruptive than the introduction of K9 assets.

While ETD technologies provide similar and overlapping solutions to K9 assets, specialised equipment should be considered an asset to augment, rather than replace, the use of K9s in today’s operating environment. K9s still provide a specialised service and are a tremendous force multiplier in terms of their deterrent effect, mobility, and speed of operation.

A well-rounded threat detection and counter-terrorism toolbox should incorporate smart, layered employment of K9 assets, bulk explosives screening, X-ray, Raman, and ETD technology to complement each other, based on the pros and cons of each system.