September 19, 2002
“Pups” Have Nose for Terror
"Our standards are so high that only one in 1,000 qualify," Mike Herstik said. "Those accepted get their college education here and then go to Israel for graduate work."
Herstik is not the admissions officer at an Ivy League university, but carries the title of director of canine operations for Pups for Peace, an innovative project to train explosive-sniffing dogs to foil would-be suicide bombers in Israel.
At a fenced, high-security training camp in the Los Angeles area, Herstik put Nitro, a black Labrador retriever, through his paces for this reporter, the only journalist granted access to the facility.
After he was given a command, Nitro bounded down a row of identical wooden boxes, then stopped, sat and pointed to the one box containing a can of smokeless shotgun powder. As a reward, Nitro received a toy from the trainer.
Throughout the camp, which has been built to resemble an urban setting but whose location is secret, some 20 young Israelis, mainly soldiers and police personnel, were in the midst of a two-month, six- days-a-week course to bond and train with their canine partners.
The Pups for Peace project can serve as a textbook example of what one man can do to transmute a deep emotional shock into pragmatic action.
That moment of shock came on March 27 for Dr. Glenn Yago, an economist at the Milken Institute think tank in Santa Monica, when he heard the horrifying news that a suicide bomber had walked unchallenged into a hotel in Netanya and killed 29 Israelis attending a Passover seder.
Yago, 51, a native of Shreveport, La., who had spent five years in Israel studying at the Hebrew University and living on a kibbutz on the Golan Heights, said, "I became obsessed by the idea that if there had been an explosive-sniffing dog at the entrance to the hotel, this tragedy could have been averted."
His first step was to scour the Internet for an experienced dog trainer. He saw that Herstik's name kept popping up. He learned that Herstik had 23 years of experience on the job, including programs for the U.S. military and Los Angeles Police Department, and had specialized in explosive detection.
As a son of Holocaust survivors and strong supporter of Israel, Herstik was motivated to take a sharp pay cut and accept Yago's offer.
There remained only such details as convincing top Israeli security and military officials to approve the project and the active participation of their personnel, raising some $700,000 locally for the initial pilot project, and finding a secure training facility.
Yago, who credits a solid core of similar-minded activists for turning the concept into reality, played his Israeli and American connections and was met with enthusiastic support.
Israel's Public Security Minister Uzi Landau became an instant advocate, the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program and the Golan Fund backed the project and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles allocated $250,000 through its Jews in Crisis Fund.
In late August, 45 carefully selected dogs and the first contingent of Israeli trainers-in-training arrived at the Los Angeles site. "Graduation" of the first class is set for early November.
"The dogs are getting their foundation training here and then will have a month's 'post-graduate' scenario training at a camp on the Golan Heights," Herstik said.
To qualify for the program, each dog has to conform to a physical and psychological profile. "To pass, a dog must be very athletic, have no fear of strange places and be obsessive about getting a toy reward," Herstik said. "All of our training is play-based -- find a bomb, get a toy."
There are no exclusions based on a dog's breed or gender -- "We're neither racist nor sexist," Herstik said -- but those chosen so far are mainly Belgian Malinois, a variety of Belgian shepherds, followed by Labrador retrievers and German shepherds.
The project's leaders are emphatic that they are not training attack dogs who will lunge at or bite a suspect. "The dog's job is to recognize the odor of an explosive material and then sit and stare," Herstik said. "It's then up to the handler what action to take."
Once the pilot project has proven itself, Yago is looking toward a training program of unprecedented scope and size. "We want to cycle 1,000 dogs a year for use at Israeli schools, airports, bus stations, railroad depots, malls and discos," he said.
Once the Israeli need is met, Yago visualizes supplying trained dogs to Jewish and general communities throughout the world to aid the war on terrorism. "As an economist, I never thought I'd be involved in something like this," he said. "But I've come to realize that if you don't have physical security, then economic security goes to hell."
With the cost of training one dog and its handler running at $10,000, Pups for Peace and its supporting organizations are embarking on extensive fundraising drives.
The first such event was held recently in New York, at which Gov. George Pataki told participants, "We support the people and the State of Israel, not by building bombs and taking lives, but by trying to provide security and hope."
To show his appreciation to the governor, Herstik formally changed the name of his prize Labrador from Nitro to Gershon, a Hebraized version of George.