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At London Olympics, dogs have sniffed out a key anti-terror role

A cadre of bomb-sniffing dogs gets set to find threats at the 2012 London Olympics alongside the tens of thousands of two-legged security personnel preparing to make the city safe. Msnbc.com's F. Brinley Bruton reports.


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LONDON -- Benson’s tail wagged lazily as he weaved through the crowds in London’s St. Pancras railway station.

“Good morning ladies and gents, police dog working,” said the pooch’s handler, Graham Rowlstone of the British Transport Police, as the pair strode beneath a soaring glass-and-blue-steel ceiling. “Just making sure it’s nice and safe for you.”


Some travelers and commuters smiled, laughed and said hello to the black lab. A few petted him. But mostly the pair slipped easily through the concourse.

Suddenly, Benson cocked his ears, lifted his tail and picked up the pace. He trotted in front of a nondescript man in a dark blue fleece, sat down and looked up expectantly.

“Good morning, sir. Where are you traveling today?” Rowlstone asked.

It was a drill to show that Benson’s explosives-sniffing skills were still sharp. The dog passed the test and the man in blue – dog trainer and police officer Paul Saunders – dropped a tennis ball, which Benson chewed enthusiastically.

Dealing with threats
As Britain gears up for the estimated one million visitors expected to descend on the city for the 2012 Olympic Games, bomb-sniffing teams like Benson and Rowlstone are preparing to deal with the threats that come with the big crowds.

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Benson is a relative newcomer to the explosives-detection space, which has been long dominated by “proactive” dogs, which concentrate on inspecting places such as lost-luggage departments and suspicious packages left on trains and buses. In other words, they deal with stationary targets. 

About three years ago, the British Transport Police and others began to train so-called passive dogs like Benson, which search for explosives among crowds of people, essentially following a scent until it stops.

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Officer Graham Rowlstone of the British Transport Police pats Benson after he correctly identifies a threat in London's St. Pancras Station.

 

Bomb-sniffer dogs are an integral part of the system in place meant to keep travelers safe and public transport running smoothly, British Transport Police Inspector Ed Purchase told msnbc.com.

“The dogs are an extended part of the security operation within London and around the country, making sure the railways are safe, members of the public are safe and that we can keep all the transport system open,” he said.

With the biggest and oldest dog unit in the country, the British Transport Police – in charge of policing Britain's railways and subways – know what they’re talking about.

Attack highly likely?
Britain has faced threats to its mass transit systems for well over a century – the first terrorist strike on London’s underground network was in the 1880s.

And just a day after the announcement was made to award the Olympics to London on July 6, 2005, the city suffered its worst peacetime attack when four suicide bombers killed 52 commuters.

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So it comes as no surprise that the issue of security on the country’s transport system weighs heavily on the minds of the Olympics organizers.

The games will see the U.K.’s largest peacetime security operation involving tens of thousands of security officials, with 13,500 military personnel, 12,000 police and 10,000 private contractors.

Current potential dangers to London come from a variety of sources including al-Qaida and related jihadi groups, right-wing extremists and Northern Ireland-related militants, according to officials.

The U.K.’s alert level is expected to be raised to “severe” during the games, meaning that an attack is considered highly likely, the government says.

Four-legged ambassadors
For Benson and his canine colleagues it will be a busy time. But while they are most valued for their keen noses, the dogs also have a key public relations role to play.

“(The dogs) are a tool … effective across a range of activities – reassurance, engagement with the public and detection – that’s why they’re attractive to us,” Superintendent Philip Trendall, of the British Transport Police's Counter Terrorism Support Unit, told msnbc.com.

“People notice us a lot more,” said Constable Tony Mart, who works with another black lab, named Pete. “They will always see a police officer with a dog. The interaction with the public is great,” he said.

British Transport Police

Benson the police dog even has his own business card.

About a dozen passives have been incorporated into the team over the last three years, Trendall said, but declined to discuss their success rates.

And he says that the dogs’ public-facing role in boosting confidence and good cheer is almost as important as its explosives-sniffing one.

“A machine that people want to come up and give a biscuit to and pat doesn’t exist,” he said.

F. Brinley Bruton is a reporter and editor with msnbc.com in London. Follow her on Twitter.

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