Image courtesy MTA from Press Release

An often overlooked but crucial force within the MTA Police Department is its elite canine unit. Last month, 13 dogs (and their human counterparts) graduated from the agency’s Explosive Detection Training Course, held on a 72-acre center in Dutchess County, New York. The graduation ceremony took place on January 31, inside Grand Central Terminal, where the dogs officially became officers and received small police shields for their collars. The occasion got us wondering: how are canines actually raised and trained to enforce the law and protect civilians?

The MTA PA canine unit was established in 2002, shortly after the tragic September 11th attacks. Police dogs, however, are widely used on the federal, state and local level to assist on a variety of tasks, including drug and weapon detection and cadaver searches. That’s because dogs possess an incredible sense of smell that is 3,000 to 5,000 times more sensitive than that of the human nose. This allows them to trace and break down a scent that is otherwise undetectable for us.

The MTA PD canine unit — one of the largest canine explosives detection forces in the nation — usually consists of German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois mixes, which are considered to be the most equipped for tactical and strategic purposes. The selected dogs enter canine training when they are roughly a year and a half old, and live with a member of the MTA police department. As such, they often become part of the family and quickly form deep bonds with members of the household.

As for the actual training process, the MTA PD explosive detection and anti-terrorism program is a 12-week intensive that features an obstacle course with cars, platforms, buses, and even a decommissioned train. Each canine officer is put through a number of test scenarios on the Dutchess County campus, the only state-of-the-art mass transit specific training center in the nation: it’s home to indoor training areas, multiple outdoor fields, classrooms and a veterinary room.

According to the MTA, only one in thirty canines actually possess the abilities needed to join the explosive detection force, which is responsible for investigating suspicious packages and patrolling stations, including facilities of the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad and Staten Island Railway. (The New York City Subway is patrolled by the NYPD Transit Bureau.) The dogs usually have an average career of 8 to 10 years before retiring, and are named after a fallen officer, firefighter or soldier of the United States Armed Services.

Whereas the MTA canine unit was founded shortly after of 9/11, the New York State Police canine unit has a history that dates back to 1975. Preparation for the NYSP unit consists of a more comprehensive, 20-week training program in Cooperstown, New York that involves tracking, building searches, and land navigation; dogs are also screened to test for aggression, sociability and agility, among other qualities.

The first three canines that were purchased by the NYSP cost roughly 10,000 dollars and were originally from the United States Army. Interestingly, the team was initially trained to service the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. From 1978 to 1990, the NYSP canine unit grew from 3 canines to 50 — and eventually, other law enforcement agencies, including the New York Department of Corrections and the MTA started their own.

“In our post 9/11 world, the MTA PD canine unit is crucial to our counter-terrorism efforts and keeping the public safe,” MTA Chief of Police Owen Monaghan stated. Time and time again, man’s best friend has proven to keep New Yorkers secure in a very uncertain world.

Next, check out our past coverage from our Cities 101 column to learn about how New York City works.