Sniffing out danger at UC Berkeley

Molly is only 9 years old, but she has a high-stakes job. She’s an Explosives Ordinance Detection (EOD) canine, which means she’s trained to sniff out bombs. She’s worked for UC Berkeley’s police department for seven years.

molly the dog and officer charissa arthur

Bomb-sniffing dog Molly and her handler, Officer Charissa Arthur (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

Molly, a chocolate lab mix, is one of two dogs on UCPD’s bomb squad — the other is a 3-year-old border collie mix named Boalt. The department works with canine trainer David Dorn, who runs K-9 Specialized Training and Consulting. He found Molly at a local shelter — he routinely checks nearby shelters for potential service dogs — and although the young lab had been severely abused by her previous owners, Dorn thought she had what it took to be a successful Explosives Detection Dog.

To be good bomb sniffers, dogs need to have a solid work ethic and be eager to please. They should be able to focus for at least 30 minutes, so they can conduct a bomb sweep without becoming distracted. The field typically uses German shepherds and Belgian shepherds called malinois, but the breed isn’t important, as long as the dogs can do the job.

UCPD formed the EOD canine program in 2001. It works closely with the campus’s bomb squad, a free program run by the FBI, which began more than four decades ago after former Berkeley math professor Ted Kaczynski, nicknamed the Unabomber, began mailing bombs to universities and other agencies, killing three people and injuring 23, including a Berkeley graduate student and faculty member in the early 1980s. At the time, the FBI wanted more resources to respond to the attacks, so it started a program to provide free training to local law enforcement agencies.

The program is meant to “keep the campus community safe and to minimize lost productivity,” says Sgt. Sabrina Reich, UCPD’s public information officer. In return, the agencies are expected to provide free bomb response and disposal services to other agencies in Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin counties.

Successful EOD canines need dedicated handlers, who look after their dogs around the clock. Every five years, the dogs are assigned to a new handler. “It can be especially wrenching for the first handler when their dog is reassigned to a new handler,” says Sgt. Nicole Miller, who supervises the campus’s program.

When Molly joined UCPD as a rookie in 2011, she was paired with Officer Zoe Garlick, who watched the lab go from shy and fearful to a social, skilled bomb detector.

For the past three years, Molly has been with Officer Charissa Arthur, who calls Molly “the best partner anyone could ask for.”

During the week, Molly goes to work with Arthur and conducts a variety of tasks. If the campus receives a bomb threat, Molly and Arthur will go check it out, searching the area for items of concern. They do security sweeps of the stadium before every football game and commencement, and they work at all the big events on campus, like the Ben Shapiro talk or the Clinton Global Initiative forum. The duo even worked at the 2016 Super Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Even the best EOD canines need to keep up their detective chops, so when Arthur isn’t on assignment, she’ll do impromptu trainings with Molly. To be able to sniff out explosives, Molly has been trained to detect about a dozen different chemicals used to make bombs. Arthur will have Molly sniff a particular chemical, and then will hide it on campus, say in an empty classroom or parking lot. Then, she’ll ask Molly to find it, and the lab will tear down the hallway or across the lot looking for it. When she finds it, Molly will look at it, then back at Arthur, until Arthur gives her the cue that she completed the task. As a reward, Arthur gives Molly a tennis ball attached to a string and plays tug for a few minutes.

In addition, Molly has trained with the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as dozens of Bay Area agencies. When time allows, Arthur and Boalt’s handler, Officer Brandon Netz, will take Molly and Boalt to the Delta Dog Camp in Oakley.

Boalt the dog

Boalt, a 3-year-old border collie mix, will have a new canine partner when Molly retires next year. (Photo courtesy of UCPD)

Since UC Berkeley’s EOD canine program began more than 15 years ago, seven dogs have taken part. A new dog will come on when Molly retires next year.

Trainer Dorn is already on the lookout for her replacement, and UCPD just interviewed officers for the next handler position. Miller says once the new canine and handler have been selected, they will begin working together to hone their detection skills and assist Boalt and Netz.

When a bomb-detecting dog reaches the end of its career, as Molly has, Miller says it often goes to one of its former handlers. And she says finding a home is never a problem. “When it’s time for the dogs to retire, there are plenty of people who want them,” she says.

While Arthur has opted out of being a handler again, Molly will continue to live with Arthur and her family, which includes another retired Berkeley bomb sniffer named Drover.

Learn more about EOD Canine Program.