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The Recruit(s): Picking the Pups

It’s a bright weekday morning in July as Andy and Steve, the trainers for CIA’s fall puppy class, exit interstate 81 onto a two-lane country road in Pennsylvania, rambling past green hills of pastureland and corn, farm houses gleaming in the sunlight, and old barns stubbornly standing against a strong summer breeze.

They’re headed to Susquehanna Service Dogs in Pennsylvania to evaluate seven Labrador Retrievers as possible candidates for our upcoming puppy class. Officers from Fredrick County Fire Marshal and Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia accompany the trainers, hoping to pick out a puppy for their respective units.

As one of the largest K9 Explosive Detection programs in the Washington Metropolitan Area, and the first United States Police Canine Association (USPCA)-certified “Detector Training Center” in the country, CIA often trains dogs for local law enforcement. We also provide ongoing training, evaluations, and certification for local and federal agencies, including FBI and State Department.

What are CIA Dog Trainers Looking For?

For our fall 2017 "puppy class,” we need to find six dogs in total, four for CIA and one each for Frederick and Fairfax counties. The “puppies” typically range in age anywhere from 8 months to 2 ½ years old and are almost always dogs that are being released from service dog programs. Our instructors visit several different organizations throughout the region—such as Susquehanna Service Dogs and Puppies Behind Bars—to test potential puppies a few weeks before the new class begins.

Like many explosive detection programs, we use Labrador Retrievers because of their non-stop energy, friendly demeanor, and love of food. Our program uses positive training methods only, and the dogs are trained using food rewards, so a strong food drive and a high level of energy are extremely important.

Susquehanna, which raises and trains services dogs to assist children and adults with disabilities to become more independent, intimately knows the personalities of each puppy in its program. Many of the dogs are born at Susquehanna, while others enter the program at 8 weeks of age.

Susquehanna’s puppies are raised by volunteer puppy raisers for 16-18 months, and then the dogs enter Susquehanna’s advanced training program for service dog work. Usually, by the time the dogs are between 1 ½ to 2 years old, Susquehanna knows whether or not the dog will make it as a service dog. Not all dogs make the cut. 

“If we’re releasing a dog, it’s usually due to health or temperament,” says Pam Foreman, Director of Susquehanna Service Dogs. “The temperament of a good service dog requires a strong work ethic and a certain level of energy, but it has to be a specific kind of energy. They have to really want to work – opening and shutting doors, turning on and off lights, retrieving things, being attentive to their partner and not sidetracked by environmental stimuli including olfactory distractions – but it’s not an over-the-top kind of energy.”

That over-the-top, impossible to turn off energy is exactly what our CIA trainers, Andy and Steve, are looking for. So when a dog gets released from a program like Susquehanna, they now have another place to go.

“In the beginning,” says Foreman, “some of our puppy raisers were a little apprehensive about our relationship with the CIA because they knew there was a certain amount of risk associated with being an explosive detection canine, and also because they wanted the dog they helped train to succeed at being a service dog – that’s why they became a puppy raiser. But now people are proud that their dog, the dog they helped to raise and train, has more options as a working dog and can go on and do great things for our country.”

Evaluations at Susquehanna:

The seven puppies Susquehanna is releasing from the program are six females: Lulu, Freya, Axel, Indigo, Heide, and Suni; and one male, Armstrong.

Andy and Steve, with the help of another CIA K9 instructor, run a series of tests to see how the seven pups react to various situations they might encounter during training or later on the job:

Our K9 instructors evaluate and score each dog. Once they’ve visited and evaluated all of the dogs in the different programs under consideration for this fall’s puppy class, the entire CIA training staff will meet to discuss all the dogs they’ve seen over the past few weeks. They’ll chose the dogs with the highest combined scores to join the program.

Which puppies made the cut? Check back next week to see which puppies were chosen for CIA’s Fall 2017 Puppy Class!

If you miss any of the articles in this series, visit “Follow CIA’s New Puppy Class!” main page, where we are chronicling the puppies’ progresses throughout their training.

Posted: Aug 24, 2017 03:26 PM
Last Updated: Oct 19, 2017 12:45 PM