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Prisoners Help Train Future (K9) Law Enforcement Officers

by Christopher Zoukis

Post-9/11, the demand for highly-trained explosives investigators has grown significantly; law enforcement agencies nationwide have hurried to recruit officers who have received specialized training in the detection of bombs and accelerants. And in an ironic twist, prisoners play a central role in the training of this new breed of investigator.

That is, bomb-sniffing dogs.

Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), a nonprofit founded in 1997, trains prisoners to raise both service dogs and explosive detection dogs. The future K9 officers enter prison at the age of eight weeks and live with their prisoner-trainer for about two years. According to the PBB’s website, the program “gives inmates the opportunity to contribute to society rather than take from it, and lets law enforcement see that inmates are capable of doing something positive for the community.”

A news article recently profiled PBB graduate and ATF K9 agent Oscar. Oscar, who by all accounts is a good boy, was raised by a federal prisoner in Ohio. He then went on to complete an intensive 12-week training program at the ATF’s National Canine Center in Front Royal, Virginia. Oscar is now an accelerant detection dog, partnered with ATF agent Mills.

“He’s incredible in a fire scene,” Mills said. “He can pinpoint the location of accelerants – if somebody uses gasoline or diesel fuel, kerosene, charcoal fluid, anything like that to ignite a fire, he can pinpoint the location of where they poured it.”

Agent Mills and Oscar, who are stationed in Utah, investigate approximately 30 to 40 fires each year. Mills said Oscar is capable of finding a drop of gasoline on the end of a golf tee, buried in a lawn.

“[It is] incredible to me [] how good his nose is,” Mills stated, in reference to Oscar’s olfactory prowess. “Studies have proven that these dogs can detect odors in the neighborhood of 500 parts per trillion. So, he is very, very good at detecting the odor.”

MSA Security, a company that trains and provides explosive-detection K9s to law enforcement agencies, also uses dogs trained by prisoners. MSA fields around 160 teams in several large cities, and told the Smithsonian Magazine that it supplies dogs for “a government agency referred to by three initials for use in the Middle East conflict zones.”

Prisoner-trained explosive detection dogs are formidable law enforcement officers. According to the Smithsonian, a dog’s nostrils extend to the back of its throat, it can wiggle each nostril independently (useful for pinpointing the precise location of an odor) and 35 percent of a dog’s brain is dedicated to smell.

K9s trained to sniff out explosives are also very expensive, fetching prices of up to $25,000 according the New York Times. Which makes their initial socialization training by prisoners, who are typically paid very low wages, a bargain.

Most dogs trained to detect bombs are purchased overseas and imported to the U.S. The Transportation Security Administration alone employs 1,000 detection dogs, and needs to acquire 350 new K9s each year.

Puppies Behind Bars has graduated over 500 working dogs since September 11, 2001. Many of the graduates become explosive detection dogs. But while they are being trained in correctional facilities, they bring joy, hope and pride to their prisoner-trainers. 

Sources:,,, The New York Times


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