Expert sees dog as defense weapon

AUGUSTA, GA -- A Savannah River Site scientist has a plan to use man's best friend as a defense against chemical warfare.

Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, a canine expert at the site's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, contends that some dog breeds could be trained to act as sentries against chemical weapons.

His resolve to pursue such work intensified Sept. 11, when he watched from a hotel room four miles away in Newark, N.J., as terrorists felled the World Trade Center in New York.

''It's a feeling I can't describe,'' said Dr. Brisbin, who was in New Jersey as a delegate to the American Kennel Club, representing the American Staffordshire Terrier. ''It will be with me for the rest of my life.

''I feel resolve to do this. I really want to train dogs better.''

Dr. Brisbin's plan is part of a proposal to create a center to train people to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks that use weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

Separate versions of the proposal, drafted last year by the University of Georgia and the Medical College of Georgia, are being considered by federal agencies for funding in the coming fiscal year, said Dr. Cham Dallas, a University of Georgia professor who is heading the effort.

''What I'm doing is mobilizing the universities to train what we're calling 'second responders'—physicians, nurses, pharmacists, veterinarians, environmental health experts and information specialists,'' said Dr. Dallas, the director of the school's toxicology program and civilian consultant on weapons of mass destruction to the U.S. Surgeon General.

''There's an enormous second line of defense necessary,'' Dr. Dallas said.

Under Dr. Brisbin's plan, dogs would be trained to sniff for specific chemicals used to manufacture chemical weapons.

The canines could be put to work in airports and other public places, where they could sniff out the chemicals in baggage or in clothes.

The dogs could also find chemical agents on victims of attacks, alerting medical personnel to the presence of a poison.

The dogs could work when traditional methods fail, Dr. Dallas said.

''We may not have the people; we may not have power; we may not have the equipment where we need it,'' he said. ''So we would like to incorporate some new approaches here.

''It may just be that this olfactory approach is the one. It's still in its infancy, so we're not sure if it will work or not, but we've really got to start thinking in new directions here, because we've never faced this before.''

Some rodents and insects also could be trained for such work, Dr. Brisbin said. But dogs, because of their intelligence and loyalty, can do more, the researcher said.

''Mice are really good at olfactory detection of specific odors, and so are certain kids of wasps,'' Dr. Brisbin said. ''But can any of them run down a hall and search a locker? We're not sure a dog's sense of scent is that keen as opposed to that trainable.''

''You need a dog that absolutely wants to do what you want it to do,'' said the scientist, who helped develop bloodhound teams used to track escapees from Georgia prisons. ''It's a matter of communication.''

To perform his latest work, Dr. Brisbin is partnering with researchers at Auburn University and Florida State University. He also plans to enlist local kennel clubs and dog trainers in his effort.

''The idea is for this mass of citizens, with their trained dogs, to become the basis for my testing,'' he said.