A dog’s life: TSA Explosive Detection Canines are trained in San Antonio

TSA partners with JBSA Lackland to carry-out trainings

Some of the most important security missions across mass transportation systems are in the hands or paws of canines.

SAN ANTONIO – Some of the most important security missions across mass transportation systems are in the hands or paws of canines.

Currently throughout the nation, there are more than 1,000 canine teams part of the Transportation Security Administration’s National Explosives Detection Canine Program in charge of screening cargo and passengers.

The TSA Explosive Detection Canines and Passenger Screening Canines are trained at JBSA Lackland. The dogs are wired for smell. They’re hand-picked for personality, ability and mindset and are able to break down odors that humans quite simply, can’t.

“We travel abroad over to Europe (to pick the canines),” Zebulon Polasek, branch manager for the TSA Canine Training Center said. “We have a number of stateside vendors that we partner with that are here in the United States, and we procure dogs that must meet a number of tests.”

The length of training varies depending on their task. Distractors like food, noise and people are integrated to the training to make sure nothing throws off the canines.

“We have 17 indoor training facilities and six outdoor venues, and those consist of a various different types of situation or venues such as… a wide body aircraft,” Polasek said. “We have rail cars, we have trolleys, we have static vehicles, we have luggage labs. Everything that you can think of in a mass transit or airport type environment is what we expose these canines to.”

TSA partners with JBSA Lackland and it allows for real explosives to be used as part of the training.

“(We are able to) safely store those explosives and transport them, as well as with our partnership at the San Antonio Airport. So, we don’t cut any corners. We have a good quality process.”

Currently throughout the nation, there are 1,097 certified teams in assigned strategic locations. About 250 to 300 dogs are currently in training with their handler to take part in anti-terrorism activity, including one that will be assigned locally.

The new security team will join the San Antonio International Airport. Sally the canine and her handler, Darrell Hagan are the first-ever TSA Explosive Detection Canine Team in the Alamo City.

Their first order of duty is at a drive-thru for a treat.

Sally's first order of business ahead of making her rounds at the San Antonio International Airport is to a coffee shop for a pup cup. (TSA)

“Every morning we stop for coffee, (and) she gets a pup cup,” Hagan said. “We spend 24 hours a day together. She lives at the house. She’s part of the family. She gets along with both of our pets that we have at the house. She goes to work. She loves to come to work.”

Work for Sally and Hagan requires a high level of concentration and physical activity to provide peace of mind to passengers and employees.

“The one role of TSA is to help prevent any kind of terrorist attack or any type of attack on an airplane and in transportation (sites) in general,” Patricia Mancha said. Mancha is the Texas media spokesperson for TSA. “So, the dogs are an added layer of protection. They really help to detect bombs, bomb-making equipment, any type of explosive devices that people may bring that want to do harm on a plane.”

Sally does not wear a vest while on the job as it gives her anxiety however, no one is allowed to pet her while on the job.

Sally can detect bombs, bomb-making equipment or any type of explosive. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

“She will screen passengers (through) what we call the vapor wake,” Hagan said. “As the passengers pass us, she searches behind them. (Passengers) will leave a vapor trail for her to go into and find the odors that she’s trained on.”

Sally’s scent receptors allow her to break down odors.

Since their recent arrival to the airport, no explosives have been detected as Sally and Hagan have 30 days to get used to their new environment and will later undergo an assessment for final certification.

According to TSA, Sally will soon have more canines joining her at the airport to train and get certified to protect our airports.

For more information on the TSA Canine Training Center, click here.

Meet Sally, a new security K9 at the San Antonio International Airport.

About the Authors:

Alicia Barrera is a KSAT 12 News reporter and anchor. She is also a co-host of the streaming show KSAT News Now. Alicia is a first-generation Mexican-American, fluent in both Spanish and English with a bachelor's degree from Our Lady of the Lake University. She enjoys reading books, traveling solo across Mexico and spending time with family.