Ever since the dawn of time — give or take a few millennia — humans and dogs have been best buds. People liked dogs, with their scary barks and teeth when needed. And their great noses. Dogs thought, “Why not, as long as they feed and pet us?”
Ever since the dawn of technology, researchers have gazed past the dog’s eager eyes and sensitive nose and thought, “Meh. I can build something better than that!” The race was on for a “biomimetic olfactory microsystem” to replace the dog.
Mash-ups of mechanisms and organisms abounded. An army lab rigged a tube with a wire that blood-loving bugs would dance on and signal if they smelled the enemy. The cone-nosed bugs lacked judgment.
Plants take less maintenance than dogs. What about a super fern that would turn white if it detected a bomb? Sure enough. A transgenic plant could detect TNT. It took the torpid topiary between 24 and 48 hours to turn pale.
The Germans figured the turkey vulture, with perhaps the most advanced smell of any raptor, could replace the earthbound dog.
Sherlock didn’t like to fly when he was searching. He waddled like a duck. He would bolt and hide.
Reconsider the humble dog. The one researchers looked at and said, “Sorry, I’m just not that into you.” More fun than a machine and usually less expensive. Check. Can signal the presence of a bomb within minutes or seconds. Check. And unlike vultures, dogs don’t constantly upchuck corrosive vomit or pee down their legs to keep bacteria at bay.
After spending blizzards of cash on electronic noses, the Pentagon came to the conclusion that dogs and their handlers, along with observant humans, were the best bomb detectors out there.
Written by Cat Warren, a professor at NC State who teaches science journalism and creative nonfiction. Warren is the author of What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs (Touchstone, 2013). You can read an excerpt and see a video of her cadaver dog training at catwarren.com.