Detection Canine Sciences, Innovation, Technology and Education

Transforming the way they defend us and we protect them.

As the variety and number of national, state and local security threats have increased in recent years, detection canines have proven to be an increasingly important counterterrorism tool to safeguard national security and public safety. They are widely deployed in airports, cargo and mail facilities and with law enforcement for real-time, advanced threat detection. No other detection technology currently available can locate and track-to-source small quantity odors in real time, providing critical threat intelligence and enabling rapid deployment of countermeasures to reduce risk.

Chocolate labrador retriever sitting amongst boxes

The Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Canine Performance Sciences (CPS) program has been internationally recognized as a leader in detection canine research, breeding, development and technological innovation for almost 30 years. This team of subject matter experts in the field of canine detection work to find new ways to improve on the olfactory abilities of dogs to detect everything from disease to drugs to explosives.

CPS has become a recognized center of excellence. From original efforts aimed broadly at working dog populations, the program has focused over the last 15 years on detection canine sciences — developing and refining breeding, development and training protocols for dogs tasked to detect many types of threats to national security and public safety.

That expertise was a key factor when Auburn was selected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, or DHS S&T, to spearhead an interdepartmental, interagency and multi-institutional collaboration to drive development of scientifically validated procedures, training and canine mobile sensing technologies, with broad applications to the whole of the homeland security mission.

Responding to calls for a large-scale, cooperative and academic effort to advance detection canine sciences, Auburn University created the Detection Canine Science, Innovation, Technology and Education Program, also known as DCSITE, to define and deploy science-based and science-driven standards of practice through comprehensive research and development efforts; foster technological innovation; sharpen responsiveness to emerging threats; develop and deliver formal educational programs; and provide a centralized hub for expertise and knowledge in the field.

This multidisciplinary program will advance continual, science-based and science-driven improvement in and development of best practices required for domestic production of detection canines needed to identify and mitigate emerging threats, and will centralize research, innovation, training and education efforts in the detection canine sciences field. A 5-year, $24 million research contract will support DCSITE operations to ultimately fulfill the DHS S&T mission as the primary resource for expertise in all areas of detection canine sciences.

DCSITE’s programmatic goals and objectives are intelligence-driven, in concert with end-user mission priorities, to identify and address current gaps, needs and emerging threats by better leveraging academic knowledge to advance detection canine sciences and enhance operational threat detection capabilities to preserve national security and public safety.

Yellow labrador retriever sniffing nose of airplane

Created as a resource to ensure the nation does everything possible to prevent potential threats, DCSITE will be anchored in the College of Veterinary Medicine and led by the CPS program. However, the endeavor also represents a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort involving multiple subject matter experts across several colleges, as well as supporting educational and technical units which will be key constituents in this effort. DCSITE’s capabilities and national footprint will be further leveraged through targeted external partnerships involving subject matter experts at other U.S. academic institutions, private research enterprises and national laboratories.

While a dog’s nose may seem low tech to the average person, the science behind detection canines is remarkably complex, requiring DCSITE to integrate the best scientific practices in analytical chemistry, genetics, genomics, reproduction, veterinary and sports medicine, olfactory neuroscience, behavior and cognition, metrology and engineering to accomplish its mission. DCSITE will utilize that wide range of expertise to focus on three key components — the dogs, operational dynamics and targets of detection.

While Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and CPS are the foundation, this is both a university-wide and nationwide effort. DCSITE would not exist without Auburn’s recognized expertise across a variety of disciplines. No single Auburn college or support unit could pull it off alone. The dimensions of the task are so enormous and the work is so important that not even one university could encompass it all. That’s why the involvement of other universities, research facilities and laboratories around the country is critical as well, all working together to make DCSITE a national resource with a vital role to play in America’s security.

Our tireless work over nearly three decades brought us to this point for one simple reason: To save lives… both ours and theirs.

Because for generations, dogs have been more than our best friend. They are our best defense.


Black labrador jumpng on man

Dogs have evolved over millions of years to use their sense of smell for everything from detecting prey to identifying friend and foe. Their perception of the world is driven to a significant degree by their highly evolved sense of smell. The key to producing successful detection canines is to breed and train puppies in a way that allows them to best take advantage of such remarkable evolutionary advantages. Dogs can detect substances at concentrations more than a thousand times smaller than any other living creature or current technology. Without the dogs and their amazing olfactory abilities, there would be no DCSITE. But there are many factors that affect the performance of detector dogs on the front lines at airports or in law enforcement working environments. Those components include critical factors such as the animal’s overall health, the genetics and phenomics that define its olfactory abilities and performance capabilities and the training that best prepares these dogs to focus on the task at hand — the detection of specific threats.


Black labrador running over obstacle course

The second focus includes training techniques and standards, but focuses more on the critical interaction between the dog and its human trainers and handlers. This component will focus on developing ways to better ensure handlers on the front line can communicate with their dogs effectively — in other words, that the handlers interpret correctly what their canine partners are trying to tell them. No mechanical device is more sensitive than a canine nose, but dogs obviously can’t talk. Effective communication between dogs and handlers can sometimes be the weakest link in the chain, so it’s important that ways be found to constantly improve on this critical human-animal interface. That means developing more effective training methods for handlers and their dogs, or even developing technology and artificial intelligence to assist them.


Potential targets are the hazardous materials that are often the weapons of choice for terrorists to inflict harm. This is an incredibly complex area, involving everything from analyzing the chemical or biological composition of actual and potential threat agents to studying the properties of liquids or vapors in a variety of different environmental conditions. Such knowledge is not only critical to effective response in emergency situations, but also in preparing for avoiding such situations through safe, but realistic training. It is important that detector dogs be trained on real target odors, which can be challenging since target odors are emitted by potentially dangerous substances. Because of this safety concern, the program focuses greatly on the continued development and validation of safe training aids that allow trainers and dogs to stay out of harm’s way while training on authentic target odors.

Black labrador with handler at airport


Frank “Skip” Bartol
Assoc. Dean for Research and Graduate Studies
Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine

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Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine