Floppy-eared dogs have an ad­van­tage with TSA

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - News - BY SARAH MERVOSH

Hun­dreds of dogs re­port for duty at air­ports across the coun­try, trained to sniff out bombs and other ex­plo­sives for the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Many have ears that hang low, de­light­fully dan­gling around their faces. Some have ears that stand tall and up­right, flick­er­ing at ev­ery sound. All have ears that are, of course, adorable.

But the TSA has made it clear that it has a pref­er­ence. The agency said it fa­vors floppy-eared dogs over pointy-eared dogs, es­pe­cially in the jobs that re­quire in­ter­act­ing with trav­el­ing pas­sen­gers, be­cause floppy-eared dogs ap­pear friend­lier and less ag­gres­sive.

“It presents just a lit­tle bit less of a con­cern,” the TSA ad­min­is­tra­tor, David Pekoske, said last month dur­ing an event at Washington Dulles In­ter­na­tional Air­port. “Doesn’t scare chil­dren.”

We know there are very im­por­tant things go­ing on at the TSA, like the fact that em­ploy­ees have been work­ing with­out pay dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down. But the in­ter­net is noth­ing if not a vor­tex of ou­trage and an­i­mal con­tent, so here we are, ready to dis­cuss the shape and elas­tic­ity of dog ears.

About 70 per­cent of dogs in the TSA’s ca­nine pro­gram have floppy ears, in­clud­ing Labrador re­triev­ers, Ger­man short­haired point­ers and Vizs­las. Among dogs that screen and in­ter­act di­rectly with pas­sen­gers, nearly all are floppy-eared be­cause those dogs are gen­er­ally seen as “friendly” and “good with all ages of peo­ple,” said Chris Shelton, who man­ages the agency’s Ca­nine Train­ing Cen­ter.

The TSA also uses some pointy-eared dogs, like Bel­gian Mali­nois and Ger­man shep­herds. Al­though the agency said it was con­fi­dent those dogs could do the job, too, some dog lovers did not take kindly to the TSA’s stance. “Se­ri­ously, TSA?” one per­son wrote on Twit­ter, post­ing a photo of a pointy-eared dog named In­di­ana Bones with his toys. “The only things that should fear In­di­ana Bones and his pointy ears are stuffed hedge­hogs and tacos.”

But is the TSA right about floppy ears? Sort of.

There is a sci­en­tific ex­pla­na­tion for why hu­mans as­so­ciate floppy ears with friendly an­i­mal be­hav­ior.

An­i­mals that were do­mes­ti­cated by hu­mans tend to have cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics in com­mon: curvier tails and more ju­ve­nile fa­cial fea­tures than their wild an­ces­tors – and flop­pier ears, said Lee Du­gatkin, an evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Louisville.

Take the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of wild foxes as an ex­am­ple. In the late 1950s, a sci­en­tist in Rus­sia named Dmitri K. Belyaev be­gan an ex­per­i­ment, which is still on­go­ing, to repli­cate the process of do­mes­ti­ca­tion in real time, se­lect­ing sil­ver foxes for breed­ing based on one char­ac­ter­is­tic: their calm­ness and friend­li­ness to­ward hu­mans.

Within about five gen­er­a­tions, the foxes, which are in the ca­nine fam­ily, be­gan to act more do­mes­ti­cated, wag­ging their tails and lick­ing peo­ple’s hands. Af­ter about 10 gen­er­a­tions, they started to de­velop floppy ears, Du­gatkin said.

“The floppy ears, the curly tails and so on, all of those some­how came along for the ride when you choose only based on be­hav­ior,” said Du­gatkin, co-au­thor of the book “How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)” with Lyud­mila Trut, a Rus­sian re­searcher who has led the sil­ver fox ex­per­i­ment for the past 60 years.

Re­searchers have dis­cov­ered that an­i­mals that are calmer and friend­lier also have fewer neu­ral crest cells, a type of stem cell that can grow to form other types of cells, in­clud­ing car­ti­lage, Du­gatkin said.

“When that man­i­fests it­self in ears,” he said, “you have ears that don’t stand up as straight be­cause they don’t have as much car­ti­lage.”

So in an evo­lu­tion­ary sense, the TSA is cor­rect: “Peo­ple in­her­ently think of these droopy ears as a more ju­ve­nilized, friendly kind of trait,” Du­gatkin said.

But in prac­tice, you can’t as­sess a dog’s per­son­al­ity sim­ply based on its breed or ear type.

“Ev­ery dog is dif­fer­ent,” said Christa Chad­wick, vice pres­i­dent of shel­ter ser­vices for the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to An­i­mals. “We don’t make any as­sump­tions around breed ten­den­cies. We re­ally get to know the in­di­vid­ual.”

Gary Szym­czak, pres­i­dent of the Ger­man Shep­herd Dog Club of Amer­ica, said the breed is highly in­tel­li­gent, train­able and not in­nately dan­ger­ous.

“I’ve got pic­tures of my grand­chil­dren when they were less than a year old in a crate with a Ger­man shep­herd.”

“It’s not the shape of the ears,” he added. “It’s what’s be­tween the ears that counts.”

On the sec­ond point, the TSA can agree. The agency said ap­pear­ance was se­condary to a dog’s abil­ity to do the job. “At the end of the day,” Shelton said, “we are fo­cused on se­cu­rity, and we are putting the best ca­nine avail­able out to do that mis­sion.”

In fact, the dogs are so es­sen­tial to the TSA’s mis­sion that they con­tinue to re­port to work while the gov­ern­ment is par­tially shut down. And, un­like other TSA em­ploy­ees, the dogs are get­ting paid – in ten­nis balls, chew toys and stuffed an­i­mals.

“The dogs get their pay ev­ery day, which is their toy,” Shelton said. Gov­ern­ment shut­down or not, “we will con­tinue to en­sure they get paid daily.”


T-Rex, a bomb-sniff­ing dog,takes part in a 2016 news con­fer­ence on dogs at New York air­ports. Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said they fa­vor floppy-eared dogs over pointy-eared dogs, es­pe­cially in the jobs that re­quire in­ter­act­ing with trav­el­ing pas­sen­gers, be­cause floppy-eared dogs ap­pear friend­lier and less ag­gres­sive.

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