Australia

The terror detector dogs protecting Australia's footy fans

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With the AFL season in full swing, dogs are being used to help combat threats at major sporting venues including the MCG.

Australia’s terror threat is listed as ‘probable’ and security around major sporting arenas remains tight. 

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, which holds 100,000 people, teams of highly-trained sniffer dogs are on patrol.

“Sniffer dogs are looking for contraband like explosives and anything that enables an explosion, like a charge or detonator,” former Australian Federal Police detective superintendent Nigel Phair tells SBS's Small Business Secrets. 

Mr Phair is now a security expert at UNSW Canberra Cyber.

Detector dogs remain stronger, smarter and faster in the field.
Detector dogs remain stronger, smarter and faster in the field.
SBS

The MCG contracts highly-trained sniffer dogs from Detector Dogs Australia to conduct routine searches of the MCG grounds, stands and carpark.

“When we go in there, we effectively search everything we can. So at the start handlers do a complete search and then one handler does ongoing searches during the entire event,” Detector Dogs Australia director Kris Kotsopoulos said.  

Sniffer dogs carry out routine searches at the MCG.
Sniffer dogs carry out routine searches at the MCG.
SBS

A dog’s sense of smell is 100,000 times more powerful than a human’s. They can detect slight traces of the scent they are trained to pick up.

“Dogs have an olfactory system (sense of smell) that’s completely different to anything else on the planet and they can smell things at a molecular level,” Mr Kotsopoulos said.

Each dog is carefully selected and very few graduate the rigorous training program.

“We’re looking for dogs that are just nuts for the ball,” he said. 

“You know the ones that are sitting around a BBQ and they want to chase the ball, again and again. When we find one of those, we know we have the right instincts, which means we have the right drive levels.”

Detector Dogs are carefully selected and intensively trained for 18 months.
Detector dogs are carefully selected and intensively trained for 18 months.
SBS

Training dogs to hunt for explosives or narcotics is based on repetition.

“If you reward the dog with a ball in two seconds then the dog makes the immediate association, it’s called 'classical conditioning'. So the dog smells the odour and has the ball delivered.

“And sadly it takes around 4,000 repetitions before the dog really understands what you want!” Mr Kotsopoulos said. 

Detector Dogs Australia works with clients around the world. It remains privately owned.

Despite recent advances in artificial intelligence devices, they say dogs have the crime-busting edge.

“Artificial Intelligence will eventually become a saviour for us, but at this stage we're only at the machine learning stage,” Mr Phair said.

“Devices are nowhere near the cognitive capability that a dog, after extensive training, can utilise.”

Nigel Phair from UNSW Canberra Cyber says sniffer dogs play a vital role in fighting crime.
Nigel Phair from UNSW Canberra Cyber says sniffer dogs play a vital role in fighting crime.
SBS

Sniffer dog training constantly evolves, as new explosive devices are developed along with ways to avoid detection.

“We are always trying to innovate and keep up with latest threats,” Mr Kotsopoulos said.

“Yet if there’s an item or explosive invented that dogs haven’t been taught to search for, it hasn’t been identified as yet, then our dogs won’t respond to it, so that’s the biggest threat currently.”

After 18 months of training, and many years of service, the dogs form close bonds with their handlers. When they ‘retire’ many working dogs are successfully re-homed.

“A lot of dogs work for between five and eight years, and many go on much longer than that,” Mr Kotsopoulos said. 

“Many find homes after service with people who have prior experience with handling working dogs, so it’s a good fit.”

Dogs are part of a broader security strategy on game days. Victoria Police officers also patrol sporting grounds, working closely with event organisers to protect the public.    

“We constantly monitor and assess our preparedness and response to a range of emergencies, with strong links to intelligence and other agencies,” a Victoria Police spokesperson said.

“Security and risk assessments are an integral part of planning for any major event and police will continue to assess events across Melbourne.”

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