Meet Sonic, Montreal airport’s cutest and furriest safety specialist in training
Like other major international travel hubs, Montreal’s Trudeau Airport relies on a wide range of technology to guard against any potential threats, with much of it installed strategically out of sight.
But there’s one decidedly low-tech safety method they keep out in the open for everyone to see.
He’s a four-legged, fuzzy and wiggly-walking German Shepherd puppy – pretty much the most adorable future security system around.
“When Sonic will be an adult…he will be an explosives detection dog, and for that, we will have certification from Transport Canada,” said Marie-Noelle Cote, Sonic’s handler, and a member of the airport’s canine unit.
Four-month-old Sonic still has some time to perfect his skills before taking the exam in Ottawa, but until then he won’t be able to rely on his cuteness alone.
The pup has a lot to learn and absorb, especially in about one year from now when he’s more mature, and the more formal part of his training begins.
BUT FIRST - PLAYTIME!
The most important first step for Sonic is to develop a relationship with his handler and become familiar with his future workplace.
That means indulging his puppy personality by allowing him to explore and play.
“We do familiarization at the airport, so he has to learn to be good with people and to be good at the airport, he can go in the elevator, on the floor, different surfaces, [and meet] people who are in a wheelchair,” Cote said.
Cote directs him to jump up onto benches and baggage platforms and teaches him how to back up onto surfaces of varying heights so he'll eventually be agile in all airport and aircraft spaces.
Not surprisingly, he gets a lot of attention from passengers as he bounds around the terminal.
“They want a picture and they’re happy and they say it’s like zootherapy when they see the dog, the stress goes down,” Cote said.
The rest of the time Sonic and Cote play, and play, and play – games of ‘fetch’ mostly, with a squeaky, purple ball, and lots of food treats handed out as rewards.
It’s all in preparation for what comes next.
“In the training period, we learn detection with the toy. So the dogs have to search for the explosives and he is rewarded with the toy,” she said.
Cote declines to reveal too many specifics about how the explosives detection training works, saying only the dog has to learn to “detect an odour,” of various chemicals.
“We hide an odour and the dogs have to smell it and show us by sitting or down or freezing and we reward the dogs,” Cote explained.
The canine squad gets on average three requests a week for their dogs to sniff at something suspicious, for example, baggage that’s been left unattended.
“The dogs learn by repetition and by exposure and we have to train in many situations, in aircraft, vehicles, inside, outside,” said Cote.
WHY GERMAN SHEPHERDS?
Cote, who has owned and loved dogs all her life, said she thinks that any breed of dog could be trained to do this kind of work.
“We have the German Shepherd because it’s like a police dog,” she said, a breed passengers recognize and associate with public safety.
“If I have a chihuahua…it’s not the same image,” she said.
Sonic, the fluffy, miniature tactician-in-training that he is, of course, won't be giving off those serious German Shepherd signals for the next eight months or so.
Right now, he’s just a bouncy little puppy who has been a delight to raise and train, Cote said.
“For me, it’s a passion. It’s not work for me, it’s playtime, always."
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