ATF unleashes bomb sniffing dogs

Bill Booth's K-9 (S.E.E.K.) graduate, Martinez, stretches out on the floor during the Search Enhanced Evidence K-9 (S.E.E.K.) Course graduation ceremony for Class No. 112 at the ATF National Canine Training Center in Front Royal on Friday morning. Four Labrador retrievers and their handlers graduated during the ceremony. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – A sleek black dog equipped with a well-trained nose for explosives, guns and shell casings takes off through a mountain top pasture after his handler releases him, dashing straight for a sedan parked about 100 yards away.

The dog quickly zeros in on the area around a tire where agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives have placed a smokeless powder that simulates a real explosive.

After a few seconds, the dog bolts back toward the other end of the field where his handler awaits him with a treat to reward his work.

The dog, Jam, was one of four to graduate Friday from the ATF’s Search Enhanced Evidence program at the National Canine Center outside Front Royal. The program, a 13-week course for dogs and their handlers, is designed to train the animals to work without a leash. The goal is to allow the dogs to search wider areas more quickly than they could on a leash.

Jam was distinguished from the other three dogs in his class by his name, which bears the initials of Johnny A. Masengale, an ATF special agent who was killed in the line of duty at Fort Lewis, Washington in 1992. Masengale died from injuries he received when 6,000 confiscated illegal fireworks and 300 pounds of explosives accidentally ignited around him.

Robert Landis, special agent K-9 handler with the ATF, releases his Labrador retriever "Jam"during a field demonstration Friday morning at the ATF Training Center in Front Royal. "Jam" graduated Friday from the Search Enhanced Evidence K-9 (S.E.E.K.) Course Graduation, in which the dog operates off the leash of the handler for safety reasons. "Jam" was named after fallen agent Johnny A. Masengale, who was killed in the line of duty in 1992 from an explosion. Rich Cooley/Daily

Masengale’s wife, Lois, of Pittsburgh, was among those attending the graduation ceremony. The ATF annually honors her husband with the Johnny A. Masengale Memorial Award given as recognition to ATF employees who have excelled in explosives work. Jam, a 2 1/2-year-old black Labrador retriever who began life with the name Sam, is the first trained ATF dog to be renamed for a fallen agent.

“ATF made us a promise 20 years ago that they wouldn’t forget us, and they wouldn’t forget Johnny,” Masengale said, “and they fulfilled that promise by naming Jam for Johnny.”

After graduation, Jam was on his way to the ATF office in Charlotte, North Carolina while his classmates and their handlers headed for assignments in other places around the country.

Shawn Crawford, lead instructor at the canine center, said all of the dogs chosen by the ATF are Labrador retrievers.

“The dogs are hunting for explosive devices, so why not use a hunting breed?” Crawford explained.

Robert Landis, special agent K-9 handler with the ATF, releases his Labrador retriever "Jam"during a field demonstration Friday morning at the ATF Training Center in Front Royal. "Jam" graduated Friday from the Search Enhanced Evidence K-9 (S.E.E.K.) Course Graduation, in which the dog operates off the leash of the handler for safety reasons. "Jam" was named after fallen agent Johnny A. Masengale, who was killed in the line of duty in 1992 from an explosion. Rich Cooley/Daily

The ATF has been training dogs and their handlers at the canine center for 20 years. The handlers come from ATF offices around the country. Sometimes they are joined by law enforcement officials from other countries, whose flags hang from the rafters of the cavernous building.

Crawford said the dogs’ training is not limited to the grounds of the canine center.
Stores, schools and other facilities frequently open their doors to allow the dogs to train in a variety of environments.

“We try to see that by the time they graduate they have been exposed to everything they will see out in the field,” Crawford said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

Lois Masengale of Pittsburgh gets a lick from "Jam," an ATF K-9 that was named after her fallen husband, special agent Johnny A. Masengale, during the Search Enhanced Evidence K-9 (S.E.E.K.) Course graduation ceremony for Class No. 112 at the ATF National Canine Training Center in Front Royal on Friday morning. "Jam's" handler, Robert Landis, looks on. Jam is the first ATF K-9 named after a fallen agent. Rich Cooley/Daily

Robert Landis, special agent K-9 handler with the ATF, sits beside his Labrador retriever "Jam"during a field graduation ceremonies Friday morning at the ATF Training Center in Front Royal. "Jam" graduated from the Search Enhanced Evidence K-9 (S.E.E.K.) Course Graduation, where the dog operates off the leash of the handler for extra safety. "Jam" was named after fallen agent Johnny A. Masengale, who was killed in the line of duty in 1992 from an explosion. Rich Cooley/Daily

"Jam", an ATF K-9, waits for his command after discovering an explosives hit on this car during a field demonstration Friday morning at the ATF Training Center in Front Royal. "Jam" graduated Friday from the Search Enhanced Evidence K-9 (S.E.E.K.) Course Graduation, in which the dog operates off the leash of the handler for safety reasons. "Jam" was named after fallen agent Johnny A. Masengale, who was killed in the line of duty in 1992 from an explosion. Rich Cooley/Daily