Deploying New Zealand’s Explosive Detector Dogs: A Personal Account from Queenstown

Deploying New Zealand’s Explosive Detector Dogs: A Personal Account from Queenstown

As New Zealand’s international tourism industry has increased year on year, the country has had to expand its air transport services and, therefore, its capability to counter the greater variety of threats that are associated with such growth. Bryn Thomas gives a personal account of the development and maintenance of New Zealand’s Aviation Security Service Explosive Detector Dog Unit (EDDU) and explains what makes it one of the best in the world.

When I was growing up in New Zealand, the rest of the world seemed so far away. It took weeks to receive overseas mail and the cost of travel to foreign destinations was prohibitive for most working-class families. It almost felt like we lived in isolation. We had very little immigration because no-one knew where in the world we were. In the late 60s, my parents had been enticed by the New Zealand government into immigrating to New Zealand from the United Kingdom for 10 English pounds. This influx of immigrants became known as the ‘10 Pound Poms’ and they were key to the commencement of New Zealand’s journey of growth. Over the following years, the country became a melting pot for various cultures and ethnicities from all over the world. For those of you who still don’t know where we are, we are to the east of Australia and north of Antarctica!

With advances in technology and cheaper airfares worldwide, the world is a lot closer these days. When international events threaten everyday life, we tend to take more notice and our concern is heightened as a result. On 11 September 2001, the world was changed and this affected many of us more than we realised.

One of my passions growing up was dogs. I remember throwing stones on a beach and watching how the dog would use its nose to find that particular stone amongst thousands more. I had my “what do you want to be when you grow up?” moment. In 2003 I packed my bags, left my hometown of 34 years and moved to Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, with the sole purpose of joining the New Zealand Aviation Security Service to pursue a career as an Explosive Detector Dog (EDD) handler. It took me two years of fostering young dogs and pestering Glenn Turner, the sergeant of the Wellington Explosive Detector Dog Unit (EDDU) before qualifying as a handler in 2005.

Glenn was instrumental in establishing the New Zealand Aviation Security Service’s EDDU. He initially travelled to the USA to understand how explosive detector dogs operated at various airports. On his return to New Zealand he was given the opportunity to trial an operational EDD. With help from the New Zealand Air Force, Glenn, along with his EDD, “Spacer”, became the first operational team within our organisation. The trial period had begun. Glenn and Spacer became somewhat of a novelty around the airport – New Zealanders had never seen a dog working at an airport before. I recall Glenn telling me the story of how the EDDU almost became a white elephant; the trial period was coming to an end, and both Glenn and Spacer were to be assessed by the New Zealand Police. It basically came down to one search. Spacer had to locate the last sample or the New Zealand Aviation Security Service EDDU would fail to exist. Fortunately for Glenn, for his management team, for myself and the many other handlers within our organisation, we have EDD Spacer to thank for our careers.

As a result of Spacer and Glenn’s success the New Zealand Aviation Security Service EDDU was established with the first team deployed at Wellington International Airport in 1992, followed closely by one EDD team employed at each of the other two major airports in New Zealand, Auckland and Christchurch. Whilst the threat level was low back then, the role of the three teams was taken very seriously. As time progressed, more teams were employed around the country to cover operational requirements. As well as airport responsibilities, teams started to find themselves operating outside of the airport environment when called on by the New Zealand Police. Bomb threats away from an airport, national events such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Rugby World Cup, and police search warrants provided a great deal of variety for the handlers and their dogs.

Things were pretty settled back then, the growth of the unit was slow, and handler opportunities were hard to come by. When they did arise, the competition was fierce and applicants predominately came from within the service. The successful applicant would always do very well in the assessment exercises, but if two or more applicants assessed well, the applicant who showed the most dedication and motivation (fostering dogs, etc.) would be successful. With success came a cost, a small cost in terms of a dog’s working life — nine weeks away from family and friends at the New Zealand Police Dog Training Centre in Wellington with the goal of becoming an operational explosive detector dog team in the ninth week.

Training an animal can be difficult and it often felt like you were on a constant rollercoaster ride throughout the course. It felt so good to graduate with an operational dog. I’m pretty sure my ‘10 Pound Pom’ parents had a few proud moments early on in my career. I began my first operational role at Wellington International Airport back in 2005 and was fortunate enough to work my first operational dog EDD “Tana” for five years. I learnt so much from him because he thought he was the boss and his drive was so high he would often dominate a search and completely ignore me. It was not until later into his working life that we really worked well together; I understood his boundaries and he understood mine. I have always found it a shame that you spend so much time training and problem-solving to reach a high working standard then all of a sudden, the dog retires and you have to start all over again, but that’s a story for another day!

“…our unit in Queenstown found itself heavily involved in the training of new puppies…”

In terms of training dogs, we have moved on from making the dog do what we want through compulsion training, to the more enjoyable learning experience of reward-based training using a marker system. The dogs love it! And to be honest so do I. It has made a huge difference in how the dogs learn and behave. It makes so much sense; learning should be enjoyable for both humans and animals. The marker system is so accurate in pin-pointing the correct behaviour, for example eliminating the behaviour of dogs nudging bags. If a dog nudges a bag we use a marker which communicates to the dog that their indication was an undesirable behaviour and the dog receives no reward. The dog is then allowed to try again and when the dog displays the correct behaviour by not nudging the bag, the dog then receives another marker, which communicates to the dog that a reward will follow. The two main characteristics that form part of our training development are positive reinforcement and negative punishment. Negative punishment isn’t as bad as it sounds, and is worth researching if you are interested in knowing more.

My recruitment was part of a worldwide reaction to the events of 11 September 2001. The New Zealand Aviation Security Service EDDU went through a period of growth as a result and numbers increased to 23 teams nationwide. We operated with these for several years, but as passenger numbers increased and various other worldwide aviation security incidents occurred, including a hijacking within our own airspace, our numbers increased further.

Tourism plays a large part of New Zealand’s economy; passenger numbers are continuing to increase and none more so than in Queenstown, a small resort town located in the lower South Island of New Zealand. Queenstown became famous in 1862 after gold was discovered in the Arrow River a short distance from the Queenstown Township. Miners from all over the world joined the gold rush, which eventually extended to the Shotover River, which is even closer to the Queenstown Township. The Shotover River was the second largest gold-bearing river in the world. Today the gold rush is over, and now the region caters for the adventure tourist and winter sport fanatics.

Over time, Queenstown Airport began to service large numbers of international and domestic travellers. The number of international flights has increased dramatically and as a result, the New Zealand Aviation Security Service decided to establish a new EDDU at Queenstown Airport in July 2015. While I was still working at Wellington Airport I saw this as an opportunity to uplift the family and start a new life in the ‘deep south’. With encouragement from my wife I applied for the position of Sergeant, Queenstown EDDU and was successful. It was such a great opportunity, not only for me to establish an operational EDDU, but a new life for our children centred on all the outdoor activities that the Queenstown region has to offer. In July of 2015 we arrived in Queenstown on a bitterly cold morning with snow on the ground.

I fondly recall my first day at work: I walked into a new office that had been allocated to me, and all that was in there was an empty desk and a telephone. Talk about starting from scratch! Over the coming months I was joined by two more experienced handlers from Auckland International Airport. The unit was starting to find its feet.

The EDDUs new breed and new recruits (Credit: New Zealand Aviation Security Service)
The EDDUs new breed and new recruits (Credit: New Zealand Aviation Security Service)

The national growth of the New Zealand Aviation Security Service EDDU places a huge demand on finding and producing good quality detector dogs, and as a result our unit in Queenstown found itself heavily involved in the training of new puppies. This was a great way to manage the downtime we had throughout the course of a day. The majority of the puppies were placed in foster homes. Each one was brought to the airport, often daily, to train and obtain environmental exposure. All of the puppies are trained to a standard before being considered to attend an EDD course at the New Zealand Police Dog Training Centre.

We are often asked, “what breed of dog do you use?”, the answer is many. We have used Hunterway’s, which are New Zealand breed sheepdogs, German Shepherds, Border Collies, Springer Spaniels, Labradors, mixed breeds and more. Over the last two years we have sourced German Short Haired Pointers crossed with Labradors and German Short Haired Pointers crossed with Beardie Collies, all have been very successful.

“…our small unit has grown to seven operational handlers including myself, partly because Queenstown EDDU also covers the operational responsibilities at Dunedin Airport…”

As well as my role of managing the EDD teams in Queenstown, I often fly around the country assessing dog teams. The New Zealand Aviation Security Service EDDU sets a high operational standard for each operational team. We currently have eight certified assessment days per year and then one annual assessment. The assessment days are the responsibility of certified team leaders and trainers, whilst the annual assessment is carried out by the New Zealand Police or the national training standards manager. Each operational team has to meet the required standard to remain operational. If a team is made non-operational because they did not meet the standard, the team then completes a training plan with the support of a team leader or trainer. The team is then reassessed after completing the training plan and if the standard is met the team is made operational.

EDD Bella (Credit: New Zealand Aviation Security Service)
EDD Bella (Credit: New Zealand Aviation Security Service)

At work, our daily operational responsibilities have increased from core functions such as responding to unattended baggage incidents, effecting proactive patrols, and hold baggage screening to proactive searching at check-in. Check-in searching places a high demand on a dog team’s time and we have to be very careful we don’t lower the standard of the dogs because of the reduced training time. With the increase in core functions our small unit has grown to seven operational handlers including myself, partly because Queenstown EDDU also covers the operational responsibilities at Dunedin Airport – serving the second largest city in the South Island – when needed. In time, it is proposed that Dunedin Airport will have its own dedicated EDDU.

“…the New Zealand Aviation Security Service EDDU is the only TSA-recognised detector dog unit outside of the USA…”

Establishing an explosive detector dog unit in a small town at the bottom of the world has been a great challenge, but a very enjoyable one to say the least. The dogs work well in the cold environment. Dog welfare is taken seriously, and we go to great lengths to keep them as warm as possible. Some dogs that come from the warmer North Island climate to work at Queenstown Airport love it when it snows – I swear it lifts their spirits. Yet it’s not always cold in Queenstown; we also have high temperatures in the summer, and that’s when the dogs enjoy swimming in the lake after a hard day’s work. All of our dogs come home with us and are part of family life. Overall, life is great for an explosive detector dog living and working in Queenstown.

The New Zealand Aviation Security Service continues to place high value on the services of EDDs. The EDDU has increased its numbers to 36 explosive detector dog teams nationwide and more teams are forecasted for 2019. We are also developing new ways to utilise the dog teams which have the potential to make the security screening process a more pleasant experience. To help support the growing number of dog teams, we have introduced a dedicated training team with trainers providing training support for each of the four regions. We have introduced a puppy development programme, which has been successful in producing highly motivated dogs. The puppy development programme has been essential to help cope with the demand of quality detector dogs for the service. The New Zealand Aviation Security Service EDDU is the only TSA-recognised detector dog unit outside of the USA.

From our humble beginnings to where we are now, I am not shy about saying how pleased and proud I am to see how a relatively small group of professional people, past and present, have made our EDDU what it is today. In true Kiwi spirit, when we put our minds to something we always try to do our best. Sometimes we encounter hurdles, but as a group we always seem to achieve our goals. My experience tells me that working a dog is the best job in the world. We will likely never fully understand the potential of the domesticated dog – they make you smile, laugh and sometimes cry, but there is always one constant, and that is trust.

And that is the story of a small detector dog unit from a small country at the bottom of the world, doing big things for aviation security both domestically and internationally.

Ka kite ano! (Goodbye)


Bryn Thomas is Team Leader, Explosive Detector Dog Unit for the New Zealand Aviation Security Service in Queenstown.

Bryn Thomas with his first EDD Tana
Bryn Thomas with his first EDD Tana