Vapor Dog Bonnie is welcomed to the Rotary Club of Lake Houston by club president Kathy Lemman (right) accompanied by her Explosive Detection Canine Handlers Hilda Brinas (left) and Cynthia Ramirez. Photo by Tom Broad, The Tribune
Bella and Bonnie have a simple request, “Come out to Hobby Airport and play hide-and-seek with us. Let us sniff you out.”
Gazing into their expressive, doggie eyes, how could anyone say no?
The Rotarians gathered at the Lake Houston Family YMCA Wednesday, Jan. 19 certainly couldn’t.
Bella and Bonnie are highly trained “vapor” dogs, a special class of K-9s trained to detect and deter suicide bombers. They visited the Rotary Club of Lake Houston with their human handlers, seeking out other humans to help them refine their unique olfactory skills.
“Just like people, dogs can make mistakes if they aren’t trained regularly,” explained Cynthia Ramirez, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) specialist and explosive detection canine handler who, along with her TSA partner Hilda Brinas, are assigned to patrol Hobby Airport with Bella and Bonnie.
Vapor dogs also are in use at Bush Intercontinental.
They brought Bella and Bonnie with them to encourage the Rotarians to volunteer to spend a few hours on a weekend acting as “decoys,” carrying materials to make bombs, to “sharpen” Bella and Bonnie’s bomb-sniffing skills.
“Bring your entire family, if you would like,” Ramirez said. “We won’t use the kids as decoys, but they will have a great time out at the airport for a couple hours.”
As Ramirez and Brinas explained it, Bella and Bonnie are not the traditional bomb-sniffing dogs that search where their handler points them, sniffing out luggage, vehicles, offices, businesses and the like. Bella and Bonnie are not led by Ramirez and Brinas. They are vapor dogs who are out front smelling the air around people.
When they sense an odor of interest, they lead Ramirez and Brinas toward that person. They don’t confront the person. Security officers do that.
Ramirez and Brinas demonstrated the concept by walking Bella around the room until she recognized the explosive odor that the TSA experts had planted on one of the Rotarians.
Vapor dogs train to sample the air for human heat “plumes” that contain explosive particles and detect them in masses of people even when they are moving, they said.
Bella is a 4-year-old Lab, a popular breed for vapor dogs. Most come from overseas as puppies, are sent to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for 16 to 18 weeks of training, then sent to the airport where they receive three months of training before they become “full-fledged” vapor dogs.
“Actually, their training never stops,” said Ramirez. “We train every day when we are working. And the training always changes.”
Bella and Bonnie are always with their trainers, “ … yes, they go home with us,” said Ramirez who admitted that she has six dogs at home.
“How many bombers have you found?” a Rotarian asked.
“None,” Ramirez responded. “If we had found one, I would be dead because the bomber would detonate it. This is OK because we understand. This is what we signed up for.”
“What if the dog bites me?” another Rotarian asked.
“These aren’t ‘bite’ dogs,” Ramirez said. “They are not patrol dogs. We don’t want them to bite. We are just interested in the dogs finding whatever could bring the plane down.”
“How do you become an explosive detection canine handler?” a third Rotarian asked.
“The best way is to begin working for TSA and then wait for an opening in the program,” said Ramirez who is a Texas native and Army veteran with more than 10 years as a K-9 explosives handler and has worked with TSA since 2016.
“You can help us keep Bella and Bonnie alert,” Ramirez said. “You can help us prevent another 9/11.”
The Rotary Club of Lake Houston Area meets Wednesdays, 11:45 a.m., at the Lake Houston YMCA.
Story by Tom Broad. © 2022 The Tribune. Republished with permission.