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A new generation of adorable crime-fighters collect their diplomas

DON GONYEA, HOST:

All across the country over the past month, proud high school and college graduates have been beaming as they strut across stages to collect their well-earned diplomas. On Friday, the same held true in Front Royal, Va., where a group of seven Labrador Retrievers collected their degrees - and badges, too - from the National Canine Academy of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has the story.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: It is graduation day for the ATF's Search Enhanced Evidence canines. Friends and family take their seats in folding chairs set out in the academy's warehouse-like main hall. On a table in front are photos of the seven graduating dogs, five black Labs and two yellow Labs, along with their certificates and shiny new ATF badges. Over an echoey sound system, lead instructor Shawn Crawford congratulates Class 148.

SHAWN CRAWFORD: Every team here has passed the highest of standards and exceeded the expectations of the ATF canine program. They're ready to hit the streets, serve the public and protect their communities.

LUCAS: These dogs have completed a 24-week program. The first phase involves basic obedience skills and detecting various explosives, compounds and mixtures. In the second phase, the dog is matched with its handler, an ATF special agent, and together, they train to search for explosives in places like schools, vehicles, warehouses and even stadiums. After the ceremony, as families snap photos with the dogs, Crawford says with this training, these canines can now, in theory, detect 19,000 explosives.

CRAWFORD: They get about 25 odors while they're here. Yeah. So we base our methodology on a six-family theory. And if it's commercial, homemade or military, it's going to have to have one of these six base ingredients.

LUCAS: Crawford says there are only 45 ATF dogs with this top level of training in the country. It is a specialty program, he says.

CRAWFORD: These dogs work traditionally just like any other bomb dog in the United States, except they can work off-leash when need be if there's a high threat.

LUCAS: One of the graduating teams, special agent Lindsey Bates and canine Maggie, do a quick demonstration. Crawford has placed four roller suitcases on the ground about 20 feet away.

CRAWFORD: She'll stand here, tell Maggie to go out and check those bags. When she finds the explosive, she's going to sit down, get really happy, and then she'll run back and get a big handful of food.

LUCAS: Special agent Bates focuses Maggie on the suitcases.

LINDSEY BATES: Back.

LUCAS: Runs over. She's checking the bags now.

BATES: Yes. Good girl. That is a good girl. Yes, that's a good girl.

LUCAS: This is actually how Maggie and the rest of the ATF canines will eat for the rest of their lives. They don't get a bowl of food. Instead, every day throughout the day, the handlers will put out shell casings or hide explosives at a training site, and only after detecting the explosive odor will the dog get its food reward. Despite the intensity and rigor of the training, these canines are still just dogs. They live with their handlers. That often means they are ATF bomb-sniffing dogs by day and a family dog in their off time. Such is the case with special agent Corey Wells and his canine Tara.

COREY WELLS: Did he get you, Lucy? Did he get you? Did he get you?

LUCAS: Agent Wells' parents, as well as his wife, Selena, and their two kids, traveled from Oklahoma for the graduation ceremony.

SELENA WELLS: Lucy's nine and Owen's five.

LUCAS: The kids were hugging Tara and climbing on her.

You guys excited about getting the dog?

LUCY: Obviously.

LUCAS: These ATF dogs have supported major events, including the Super Bowl, the State of the Union and presidential inaugurations. But they're also used in the bread and butter of ATF's work, solving gun crimes. Here's agent Wells again.

C WELLS: Honestly, what we're going to use her most for in Oklahoma City is, like, responding to crime scenes. So, like, the suspect tosses a gun, she can go find the gun.

LUCAS: Even something as small as a shell casing, he says, the dogs can track down.

C WELLS: Like, shell casings are the big name of the game right now for us 'cause we can link them to certain crimes. I mean, just a single shell casing, they'll go out and find. It's really impressive.

LUCAS: First, though, Wells says he has to take Tara home to Oklahoma where she can settle into her new family life, new smells, and then, of course, her new job.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Front Royal, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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