TSA tests dogs as new airport screening method

Houston Police Department K-9 dog Nevins checks the bag of an airline passenger at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The Transportation Security Administration is testing airport prescreening using dogs in several cities around the country. Passengers sniffed for explosives can skip the shoes-and-laptops routine.

WASHINGTON — As Americans pack their bags for the July 4 holiday weekend, passengers at some U.S. airports can expect to encounter a new screening measure at security checkpoints: dogs.

The Transportation Security Administration is now using dogs to prescreen passengers, sniffing for explosives before they get to the metal detectors and X-ray machines.

The good news for passengers is that this kind of passive screening — stand and be sniffed — can alleviate the need for more cumbersome procedures at the TSA checkpoint, like removing shoes and taking laptops and bagged liquids out of luggage.

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The pups aren't new employees at the TSA. In fact, airport security officials — along with customs agents and local law enforcement — have used dogs to detect contraband and to gauge suspicious behavior since before the TSA even existed.

"The canine program has been around since the early '70s. There is a lot of research over the course of the past five decades that the dogs are accurate," said Jeff Price a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver and the author of a textbook on aviation security. "They're the gold standard right now."

A TSA division trains keen-nosed breeds like German shepherds at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. But so far they haven't been used specifically to prescreen passengers in the security line and speed things up at the checkpoint.

The TSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Price said the new program likely works by shifting passengers selected by TSA agents and screened by the dogs into the super-fast "pre-check" line normally reserved for frequent travelers who have gone through a special government background check.

That speeds up security for both the passengers selected for the special line and those left in the now-shorter main security line. It also relieves pressure on backed-up TSA agents and prevents big pre-security logjams, long considered a possible target for attacks.

"Good queue management is also good security," Price said.

For now the TSA is testing the program in Denver, Indianapolis, Honolulu and Tampa, Fla. Passengers at Denver International Airport told CBS Denver they were happy with the quick trip through security.

Price said that passengers can expect to see more widespread use of the screening dogs, but the program still faces years of testing as well as legal questions about what measures civilian TSA agents are entitled to take based on the behavior of the dog.

"I'm a huge supporter of the canine program," Price said, but "it's not going to replace technology."

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