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Meet Nellie: LA's vapor-sniffing police dog

Vapor Wake trained police dog, Nellie.
Vapor Wake trained police dog, Nellie.
Stephen Hoffman/KPCC

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The increase in terrorist attacks abroad has law enforcement agencies looking to new measures for protecting the public. 

The attacks in Nice, Paris and the assault last month outside a concert in Manchester all targeted open public spaces. Now, the focus is on better safeguarding this type of location, known as "soft targets."

One new technique holds promise, capable of detecting explosives from a distance — and under the right conditions, with 98 percent accuracy.

Meet Nellie — a droopy eared, black Labrador Retriever and an important member of the LAPD's canine bomb-sniffing squad. 

But these dogs don't identify potential dangers in the conventional way. They receive special training to small vapors emitted by explosives — a method considered much more effective than traditional means.

"She's a traditional and off-leash search dog. And a vapor-wake/person-borne dog," said Nellie's handler, Officer Tom Deluccia. That means Nellie can detect explosives on people who are moving by tracking microscopic and unseen particles of odor that travel through the air. "PB is the terminology we use for person-borne – meaning person-borne explosives or a person-borne bomber. In a nutshell, it's a suicide bomber." 


Training Nellie to find a bomb in a fixed location

Nellie locates her target.
Nellie locates her target.
Stephen Hoffman/KPCC

So right now, I'm going to work her with a 6-foot-leash. We're going to do a 360 around this vehicle where I placed an explosive aid. And you're going to see how she alerts which is the passive alert where she's going to sit and state intently at the object. And I'm going to reward her and you're going to see the dynamic between us when she gets a find. You're going to see how animated she is. You'll also see how disciplined she in in her searching. How she doesn't pay attention to anything else but her work environment. 

When I start working with her, I give her a basic command. I tell her, ‘search,’ ‘seek,’ ‘find it,’ so she know, that's what I'm suppose to do.

I don't have x-ray vision but her nose can smell thousands of times greater than a human's.

It helps us in the bomb squad know exactly where it is.... It narrows our search down to such a finite area where we can say, okay, I know it's in this car. But more importantly, I know it's in this part of the car.

I'll give her her Kong and at that point I'll say ‘what a good girl, good job, yeah buddy!’ And I'll pet her. Because she's got to know how grateful I am for the job she just did. This has to be fun for her because I ask her to do this thousands and thousands of times a year. So, it can't ever become mundane, or boring, or repetitive for her. 

A change in environment, changes how Nellie and the team identify explosives

When we're in the PB or Vapor Wake mode, obviously she's not going to sit because that target is moving. So what happens is, she will actually dig her feet in, almost like she's in a full trot where she's running. And she will pull that leash so tight, it almost pulls my arm out of the socket. And she makes a B-line towards that subject. 

Environmental factors are huge for us. If we're outside and there's not a lot of wind, it's a lot harder for us to work because we count on that... air current to help that odor travel into the dog's sniff zone. 

If I'm indoors, the air is more confined but... you have air conditioning, air vents, things that can push that odor in another direction. 

You have to become almost a tracker where you have to read the environmental signs. 

The canine-handler bond

Police dog Nellie and her handler, Tom Deluccia.
Police dog Nellie and her handler, Tom Deluccia.
Stephen Hoffman/KPCC

It takes a long time. And that's why, here at LAPD, we're fortunate that these dogs come home with us because the relationship doesn't just stop at work. It's a continual bonding process. So, when the dog comes home with me, I still play with her, pet her, love her. That rapport is continuing. She rides in the car with me in the morning when I come to work. She does home with me at night. So the bond, it's ongoing. After about 4 or 5 months, it's inseparable. 

At home, Officer Deluccia is careful to set boundaries between Nellie and his family. Nellie does get to do "pet things" and gets to socialize with Deluccia's children, but at the end of the day, Nellie is property of the city and is used as as police "tool" to keep people safe. 

When Nellie is on duty, she's all business...
When Nellie is on duty, she's all business...
Stephen Hoffman/KPCC

And if Officer Deluccia leaves his current position, he also has to leave Nellie. But on the flip side, the handlers get to adopt the dogs when they reach retirement age. 

Quotes edited for clarity and brevity. 

To hear to entire visit with Nellie and Office Deluccia, click on the blue Media Player above.