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TIA bomb-sniffing dogs score fancy new digs

Renza, Dunja and Apollo work like dogs, patrolling the terminals at Tampa International Airport and sniffing suspicious bags.

But the canines just took a big step up in comfort when it comes to where they spend their breaks and practice their skills.

On Thursday, Tampa International officials showed off their new $886,000 building for bomb-sniffing dogs and their police handlers, on the northeast corner of the airport, off West Shore Boulevard.

The three teams previously worked out of makeshift office space inside Airside D. While officers filled out paperwork, the dogs were cooped up in wire crates or the back seat compartment of air-conditioned cruisers.

Dogs practiced sniffing out explosives hidden in luggage at various locations: open fields, near runways and inside the cavernous maintenance hangars for Delta Air Lines and US Airways.

TIA executives called the new canine facility the best of its kind, with ideas borrowed from a number of other airports.

For the dogs: a fenced-in exercise and training yard, a grooming room with stainless steel tubs and blow dryer and indoor/outdoor kennels where they can watch their fellow canines work through training sessions.

"They learn from the other dogs, actually pick up tips," said Sgt. Richard Osborn, supervisor of the airport's canine unit. "They get very excited, like Little Leaguers watching other kids field ground balls."

For their human partners: office space, a locker room with showers and a break room/classroom with a kitchenette. The facility has room for as many as 24 officers and six dogs.

Money for the building came from the airport's general fund, a combination of parking revenue, landing fees charged to airlines and rent from tenants including airlines and concessionaires.

The federal Transportation Security Administration buys the dogs and pays for the 10-week training course for the animals and their handlers at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. The agency also provides airports with $40,000 a year to help cover the cost of each dog team.

Teams prepare for a variety of scenarios. They sniff out explosives hidden among hundreds of bags or a single piece of luggage checked by a suspicious person, Osborn said. They practice searching inside evacuated planes and or airport terminals.

Handlers take their dogs home at night and treat them like family pets. The new building will also serve as a home away from home when their humans are on vacation. Previously, officers had to board the dogs at veterinarian offices.

"The dogs now have a space to call their own, their own environment," Osborne said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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